Politics

Global Affairs says disinformation operation targeted MP Michael Chong on WeChat

Global Affairs Canada says that a disinformation operation on the Chinese social media platform WeChat spread false information about Conservative MP Michael Chong.

Chong says federal government must take more action to combat foreign interference

Conservative member of Parliament Michael Chong speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 3, 2023.
Conservative member of Parliament Michael Chong speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Global Affairs Canada said Wednesday that Chong was the target of a May 2023 disinformation campaign that showed signs of foreign interference. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) says that a disinformation operation on the Chinese social media platform WeChat spread false information about Conservative MP Michael Chong.

In a news release Wednesday, GAC said that while monitoring social media platforms for the June 19, 2023 byelections, the department's Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) uncovered a May operation targeting Chong. RRM's purpose is to "identify and respond to foreign threats to democracies."

"Between May 4 and 13, 2023, a coordinated network of WeChat's news accounts featured, shared and amplified a large volume of false or misleading narratives about Mr. Chong," the news release said.

"Most of the activity was targeted at spreading false narratives about his identity, including commentary and claims about his background, political stances and family's heritage. It is the assessment of GAC that nothing observed represents a threat to the safety of Mr. Chong or his family."

The release said Global Affairs briefed Chong on the operation on Aug. 9.

WeChat is a popular instant messaging and networking app developed by Shenzhen-based technology company Tencent.

The release said that "China's role in the information operation is highly probable," but that the nature of the operation makes it impossible to establish a firm link to Beijing.

Chong has represented the Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills since 2004, and is the Conservative's foreign affairs critic. A Globe and Mail story from earlier this year reported that the Chinese government had targeted Chong and his family, and assigned a Toronto diplomat, Zhao Wei, to the task. Chong's father was from Hong Kong and his mother was from the Netherlands. 

The government expelled Zhao from Canada in response, and has ordered intelligence agencies to share information with the government when a foreign government targets a member of Parliament.

The news came as the Liberal government was under fire over several media stories alleging Chinese government interference in Canadian elections and institutions. The government appointed former Governor General David Johnston as special rapporteur on foreign interference to examine the issue, but Johnston stepped down in June.

The government is looking for a replacement for Johnston, and opposition parties are calling for a public inquiry into foreign interference. The government has also faced calls to establish a foreign agent registry in Canada, and will reportedly table a bill later this year.

Beijing has denied interfering in Canada's affairs.

Chong blasts government response to foreign interference

In a media statement Wednesday, Chong called the operation targeting him "another serious example of the communist government in Beijing attempting to interfere in our democracy by targeting elected officials."

He said the federal government needs to take more action to combat foreign interference.

"They have failed to introduce a foreign influence registry for those being paid to act on behalf of hostile foreign governments. They have failed to give our intelligence and law enforcement agencies the resources and tools they need to do their jobs," he said. 

"And despite the removal of a single diplomat from Beijing who was involved in foreign interference activities, they have failed to identify and remove other agents of Beijing who have interfered in our democracy or targeted Canadian citizens for harassment or abuse."

Chong said news of the operation further strengthens the case for a public inquiry into foreign interference.

At a news conference Wednesday, federal Health Minister Mark Holland said all parties need to work together on the issue.

"It's absolutely essential that we're all on the same page, and making sure that we repel these threats against our democracy, first and foremost, and secondly identify where and how these challenges might have been present," he said.

"But we do need to be patient and careful, because much of this information is, by necessity, dealing with national security and intelligence. We have to protect those that are in and doing the work of protecting and keeping us safe, so these conversations have to be careful and deliberate, and I'm pleased to say that progress is being made."

Op featured signs of foreign interference: GAC

GAC said the disinformation operation against Chong included signs of a foreign interference campaign, including coordinated content and timing, highly suspicious and abnormal shifts in the volume and scope of engagement, and the concealment of state involvement.

"One-third of the network included known state-media outlets and accounts that are likely linked to China's state apparatus but whose linkages may be opaque," GAC said. 

"Two-thirds of those accounts were anonymous and had not previously published any news stories on Canadian politics. Moreover, these accounts published or interacted with content at similar times and dates, increasing the likelihood WeChat users would see the false narratives by creating an increased volume of content on this topic."

GAC said that, although these posts went against WeChat's user code of conduct, the platform did not take any action to moderate or remove them.

"Foreign interference is a serious threat to democracy. Canada will never accept any form of interference in our democracy or internal affairs. GAC will raise with China's representatives in Canada our serious concerns over the activity observed on WeChat," GAC said. 

"We will also convey that it is completely unacceptable to directly or indirectly support information operations that target parliamentarians, their families or any Canadians."

Government 'appallingly slow' on interference: former CSIS director

Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said Chong has a point in criticizing the Liberal government's response to foreign interference.

"I think it's been appallingly slow. I mean, we're not talking about days or weeks here, we're talking about months. Well before Mr. Johnston was appointed special rapporteur we knew there was a problem," he told CBC News Network host Hannah Thibedeau.

"The only people now who are benefiting, I think, from these delays … are the Chinese security services."

A man in a suit.
Richard Fadden, former national security advisor to the prime minister, appears at the Senate national security and defence committee hearing on Bill C-51 in Ottawa on Monday, April 27, 2015. Fadden, now retired, said the Liberal government has been slow to act on foreign interference. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Fadden, who's also a former national security adviser to the prime minister, said the operation is part of an effort to disparage Chong's criticism of the Chinese government.

"I think that there's a pattern, not just in Canada but around the world, where, when this happens the Chinese security services try, through the use of disinformation and other means, to discredit — to try and suggest that the person isn't worthy of being paid attention to," Fadden said.

"I think that's what they're trying to do here. They're using disinformation to incite people not to believe, not to credit, the views that Mr. Chong holds."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Raycraft

Web writer and producer

Richard is a web writer with CBC News and an associate producer with CBC Radio. He's worked at CBC in London, Ont., Toronto, Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa.

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