Skip to content

From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Clickbait and Switch

Startling trends for democracy

Chris Alexander

If you ask Canadians, as I have been doing lately, whether they think political debate is healthy today, most will answer in the negative. Ask them when they first detected a change — whether in Canada or on the global stage — and many will say it was four or five years ago. That’s when politics seemed to take a turn toward cruder, coarser, more polarized, and generally less attractive forms of debate, especially online. This turn has left many moderate Canadians on the sidelines, wondering what happened.

The short answer boils down to three things: global inequality, Syria, and Russian propaganda. In a nutshell, globalization has produced great wealth for some, along with a new global middle class. Countless others, however, have lost out. In many places, including the United States, the Gini coefficients that measure economic inequality have increased. With social media, those disenfranchised by the new economic order have found a new outlet.

At the same time, a democratization movement that swept through the Arab world came to a crashing halt in Syria, where reformers were abandoned and left to the tender mercies of the genocidal Assad regime, triggering the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Across Europe and well beyond, the old political landscape was upended by nationalism in new, often nakedly intolerant forms.

The democratic wave triggered by the Arab Spring toppled a pro-Kremlin puppet in Kyiv in early 2014; in response, Russia kicked its propaganda machine into high gear. China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have followed suit, adjusting the scale, range, and focus of their efforts as necessary. Apart from state news services, often broadcasting in English, they have funded networks of paid lobbyists, journalists, and other professionals; they have invested in dark-ad campaigns and bot armies, along with other extremist parties willing to do their bidding. The result has been a magnetic field of global public opinion reshaped by big subsidies and massive megaphones touting messages of nationalism and intolerance.

We have seen this movie before: it happened when Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin supported Communist parties and even National Socialists in other countries, driven by both opportunity and national interest. What is different today? The platforms that now link us together — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tencent’s WeChat, and others — are far more pervasive and more formative in shaping public opinion than anything that’s come before. The skilled propagandist, with malice aforethought, has a direct line into the psyche of practically every citizen of nearly every society on the planet. This is the sobering reality of political debate in 2019.

How do you keep up to date with news and politics, whether locally, nationally, or internationally? It’s an increasingly urgent question. In our hyperconnected world, we absorb information from a cordillera of digital content — everything from salacious clickbait to peer-reviewed science. Our feeds offer up every genre, field, topic, detail, and opinion — with varying degrees of accuracy and rigour.

The good news, still so revolutionary in many ways, is that we can be more selective than ever. We can survey thousands of options and then curate the subjects we value, the media we enjoy, and the individual voices we want to hear. In principle, we get to block out the rest. With Twitter, an obvious example, we follow people and organizations we like or trust. We tell them what’s happening with us, and they do the same. So disarmingly simple! The same is true with Google News, a seemingly endless array of stories tailored to our specific tastes. A recipe for success, no?

Well, no, actually. On Twitter, you may follow people you respect, but others are free to disagree. Many are parsimonious third parties — stingy when it comes to the truth of their identities. They often speak loudly, anonymously, and colourfully, conscious that they are both winding up those who disagree with them and discrediting those with whom they seek to associate. As a result, debate declines into a kind of ironic shadowboxing. Google’s news feed is plentiful and free, but it’s unlikely to be timely, balanced, or polished for those very reasons. Once again, our digital quest for knowledge and information quickly degenerates into a rendezvous with repetition, disinformation, insult, sloppiness, irritation, or inducement.

We’ve all been there; it’s draining and dispiriting. When things go particularly wrong, we turn ourselves off. We decide this or that issue doesn’t matter as much as it once did. We become passive. But the problems with this modern information model don’t disappear. Given the long hours we spend before multiple screens, even the streams we view with skepticism continue to reach us. We passively absorb the information. Which is precisely the point.

No one, save a few very determined souls, has the time to regulate with real discernment all the news they encounter. That’s why most of us continue to rely upon, even surrender to, gatekeepers. For some, that’s the newspaper on the doorstep, the flannel-voiced CBC host, the trusted nightly television newscast. But for most of us, our staple news source has become the digital streams our smartphones dredge up.

According to numbers compiled by Data­Reportal, there are an estimated 5.1 billion mobile users in the world and 4.4 billion internet users. Of these, 3.5 billion use social media, and 3.3 billion use it on a mobile device. Twenty-five million Canadians are active on at least one social media platform — two out of every three of us — and the vast majority check that platform on a phone. On average, we use the internet nearly six hours a day and stream content over three hours, and we’re on social media for an hour and forty-seven minutes. Every day. Our online behaviour has changed our lives and often imperilled our health. And, most certainly, it has reshaped our world views.

What’s more, social media platforms, especially Twitter, are setting the agenda for those journalists still engaged in shaping our “traditional” media. Their powerful algorithms have effectively colonized older platforms, whose priorities are increasingly shaped by faceless global giants — not the individuals named on the masthead or listed in the closing credits.

The new platforms are open, which makes them varied and enticing. As a consequence of that, they are also immensely vulnerable to abuse. By and large, they do not check facts. They exercise little editorial authority over the content they publish. With 80 percent of ad revenue now going to a handful of internet giants, they have little incentive to raise the level of discourse, little incentive to change the new status quo. And that’s a standing invitation to those with things to hide or wishing to peddle dubious agendas, products, or views. Goodbye, participatory democracy. Hello, participatory propaganda.

Torqued information flows have been with us since long before the social media era, of course. For decades, countries battled for influence over shortwave radio frequencies. Speak to anyone who was a dissident in Prague in 1982 or an exile in the Kolyma gulag in 1952 or a professional in Herat in 1997, and they will remind you of the important roles the BBC World Service, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other credible sources of fact all played.

The Russians were among the pioneers in the early broadcast era. Launched in 1922, for example, Radio Moscow was transmitting in German by 1929, with French and English soon to follow. Hitler used radio too, especially after 1933. While the Soviet and Nazi propaganda machines clashed repeatedly throughout the 1930s, they managed to find common ground on August 23, 1939, when Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop signed their notorious neutrality pact, with its secret protocol agreeing jointly to dismember Poland and five other states. It was an act of supreme cynicism: at a Kremlin reception, Stalin raised an agitprop toast to Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, the security supremo charged with eliminating Bolsheviks from the Third Reich.

Countless other propagandists and populists used radio throughout the 1930s and 1940s — from Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw-Haw to Father Coughlin and Orson Welles. Beginning in the mid-1960s, North Vietnam’s Hanoi Hannah went on the air as many as three times a day for eight years to encourage American soldiers to desert. As late as 1994, local radio inflamed the Rwandan genocide by issuing chilling calls for violence.

By the 1990s, radio had begun to recede as the primary channel for propaganda and for those charged with countering it around the world. Radio Canada International, for example, broadcast in ten languages in 1984. By 2005, it had scaled back to just five. As the Cold War ended, radio gave way to English-language cable TV, which enjoyed virtually unchallenged primacy for a time. The first twenty-four-hour news channel, CNN, launched in 1980, followed by Sky News and CNBC in 1989, BBC World Service Television in 1991, and MSNBC and Fox News in 1996. Several of these organizations remain among the world’s largest, led by the BBC, with annual revenues of nearly £5 billion and a global audience of 347 million in 2018. (Only China’s CCTV can rival the BBC and top U.S. networks when it comes to viewership — with 1.2 billion watching twenty-five free and nineteen paid channels.)

But the days of Western domination are over. Al Jazeera was founded in Doha in 1996, and following 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of competitors with global reach took off.

The first focus of this wave of competition was in the Middle East and Russia, where Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al Arabiya and Iranian Al Alam News both launched in Arabic in 2003. Russia Today, now just RT, began broadcasting in English two years later, and Al Jazeera English and Al Alam English followed in 2006. In 2007, Al Arabiya English, Persian, and Urdu all launched, along with Al Alam Persian and Press TV (the English-language service of the official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB). These had scale. By 2010, for example, Al Jazeera was spending an estimated $650 million annually to reach 130 million homes.

The next wave followed the 2008 financial crisis, the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests, and the 2011 Arab Spring. In 2009, Turkey launched TRT Avaz to reach Turkic audiences in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Southwest Asia. In 2010, CCTV News launched a twenty-four-hour English service, followed by CCTV America in 2012. RT America launched in 2010, and RT UK followed in 2014. Global RT viewership had reached 43 million a week by 2017, with nearly one in four viewers living in the United States. Sputnik News Service, a repackaging of Voice of Russia and RIA-Novosti, also launched in 2014, delivering content in thirty languages.

The list goes on: TRT World launched in English in 2015, followed by WION India in 2016, and i24News in Israel in 2017. Japan and several European countries have also expanded their global news services, as has Pakistan with state-owned PTV World, Tribune 24/7, and Indus News. China Global Television Network, the parent of CCTV, is launching a new European hub with 100 journalists in London this fall.

Each new channel has reshaped both regional and global media landscapes. But it is social media that dictators, extremists, and corporate actors have recognized as the true force multiplier, which they can use to bend the news narrative and reprise the competitive information theatre of the Cold War.

They can do this in any number of ways. They can buy ads and target audiences. They can pay for and promote content that is to their liking. They can recruit fans to like this or attack that, all anonymously. Or they can amass hordes of automated accounts, backed by machine learning, to create an illusion of viral appeal or a wall of fabricated animus. They can trigger or contrive debates that influence vast swaths of public opinion. In the most dire scenarios, they can captivate an entire populace by playing one extreme against another, driving those with moderate views or nuanced ideas to the digital margins.

It all plays out on the smartphones we trust to be our eyes and ears.

The record is clear. Terrorist groups, from Hamas to the Taliban, have been manipulating our news, as the Canadian journalist Tanya Goudsouzian recently described in the Washington Post. Corporations have been doing it, too. Advocacy groups of all kinds do it. And of course, states are doing it, as anyone who has been attacked by online mobs in East Asia, South Asia, Iran, the Persian Gulf, or Turkey can attest. China’s information strategies seem especially sophisticated and far-reaching.

TV news funded by authoritarian states — much of it of high ­quality — is morphing into online commentary, videos, podcasts, and memes. In other words, a growing number of state-sponsored propaganda outlets are powering public debates.

How do they operate? Consider Russia, whose techniques are well documented. Piqued by economic sanctions imposed in response to the 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbass regions, Putin decided to visit hardship on those responsible for his country’s new isolation. At first, the Kremlin tried picking winners — a candidate or policy that suited its purposes. Then it sought polarization, by whipping extremists on opposite sides of a political battlefield into a frenzy. By design, anyone in the middle became collateral damage. Moscow also promoted Trojan Horse candidates or voices, in the form of people, parties, or supposed experts with undisclosed ties to Russia.

The playbook has remained surprisingly consistent. Propagandists target debates around immigration, minorities, and trade — the very issues on which most advanced economies have built their success. Is it working? Putin’s gang certainly claims Brexit, Trump, and Orban as victories. The ­putrefying state of political discourse is a broader, more pernicious outcome.

Yet there have been a series of recent failures. Macron’s victory in France was a defeat for the Kremlin. Despite massive efforts on behalf of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, Russia was unable to put its mark on that country’s most recent elections. And across every major democracy, new leaders, parties, and policies are challenging the appeal of extreme views — left and right.

There are other hopeful signs. Dozens of websites now unmask purveyors of disinformation, fake news, and false fronts — taking apart the ­sprawling jigsaw puzzle of propaganda piece by piece, while preparing a new generation of resilient and resourceful activists to protect freedom of speech. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, for example, has launched the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, a window on the narratives being pushed by the Kremlin and its proxies. Many studies show that audiences, especially younger ones, are quickly learning to filter out the bilge water and zero in on quality.

It’s not enough to know that Russia-backed tweets and ads are reshaping political thought. We need to know much more about how state actors are making their investments — how dictators are skewing the terms of debate, shutting down independent voices, and blocking moderate voices. Only then will we know who to tune in or tune out.

A number of recent books can help us make sense of all this. Clint Watts’s Messing with the Enemy is good on the nuts and bolts of mass disinformation. Tima Kurdi’s The Boy on the Beach is a powerful reminder of what’s at stake when we don’t counter that disinformation. And Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower shows how large clusters tend to form around strongly expressed and extreme opinions. Indeed, those willing to resort to insult, calumny, and falsehood often find themselves in the ascendant, literally calling the shots.

So what are we to do? What are the solutions? In many ways, they are simple. We need to call out extremism in all forms; we must challenge and prosecute incitements to hatred. We already regulate newspapers, radio, and TV, and we should now more seriously regulate social media channels that are de facto news organizations. We must throw RT and other propaganda factories off our cable platforms and sanction those actors who undermine our democracies or violate our election laws.

In other ways, the solutions are less simple: Increasingly, public debates are shaped by powerful group dynamics unleashed by ruthless state and non-state players. There are vast grey zones where many curious, public-minded citizens are literally blind — regions or whole countries where the internet is closed, controlled, or under tight surveillance; where journalists are threatened, beaten, or killed; where crimes and conflicts go unreported.

As things stand, internet giants benefit greatly from the discontent that generates clicks, no matter its origin. Once again, they have little or no interest in establishing new rules or raising the level of debate. For years, they have been ­complicit — sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly — with foreign-backed influence campaigns. We react impulsively to content that is calculated to offend or provoke. Each time, the giants’ servers whir into action, capturing the eyeballs and attention that siphon advertising dollars away from quality journalism.

As Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has reported, our reliance on free news sources comes at a cost. Even as we have greater access to information than ever before, we are less informed, more depressed, and less trusting of all news media. The rigorously edited newspapers and magazines that once set the news agenda (at least the ones that remain) struggle to stay afloat, as their paywalls, philanthropic models, and other revenue-­generating ideas fail to gain them adequate traction. The genuine correlation between paying for a news source and trusting it has not translated into a mass revival of traditional news or of journalism as a profession. So the distrust lingers.

Our media diet remains a never-ending fast-food feast — unappetizing and malnourishing. The landscape has become a forest of distorting ­mirrors. Yet as individuals and small groups ­challenge propaganda, a richer, deeper vein of debates, ideas, and diversity opens. Amid the squalor of social media, amazing conversations are happening, often for the first time. People are trying to reshape businesses, communities, governments, identities; they are protecting wilderness areas, calling out corporate malfeasance, organizing local elections, promoting niche start-ups, and reviving Indigenous languages. They’re also countering state-­backed distortions.

From Finland to the Philippines to Florida, citizens are neutralizing outside influence. Even in Ukraine, Russian tactics are falling flat. As the Kremlin ramped up its efforts in the wake of Yanukovych’s fall, in 2014, reformers quietly persevered, putting their country on a path toward free trade and steady integration with Europe. Putin’s irredentist coterie may not yet grasp that Ukraine, including Crimea and Donbass, is an independent state, with its own language and hist­ory. Even with its disinformation efforts, Moscow has not prevented a revival now under way from Mariupol to Mukachevo. Paradoxically, the Kremlin has in many ways provoked its own worst nightmare.

There is no panacea for the many challenges democracies face today. There is no substitute for true and informed civic engagement. But we can do more to reduce the influence of meddling. We can support news that is informative, insightful, and balanced. In Canada, we can start by passing laws that actually block foreign propaganda, streamed or otherwise, from influencing our elections. Indeed, what is the point of Canadian content requirements or bans on foreign financing if they are systematically flouted by outside interests? To tolerate such blatant infringement of laws that reflect our core values is to go down the path toward civic apathy, demoralization, and ultimately self-abnegation.

Democratic citizenship requires space for free, accountable, and original exchange. By exposing propaganda, countering disinformation, pushing back against extremism, and paying for news that truly informs, we can support better reporting, analysis, commentary, satire, and every form of artistic expression. In other words, we can enrich Canadian news and Canadian culture in ways that draw people willingly back into the honest, open political debates we need.

Chris Alexander served as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.