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Opinion: Don’t let the cyber terrorists win

editorial Sept 2
Three weeks into Canada’s Sept. 20 federal election campaign, and the anger of the electorate is on full display. While we don’t have to agree with each other, or even like each other, the least we can do is make an effort to understand each other.

Lost in the early weeks of Canada’s Sept. 20 federal election campaign—and the announcement of a controversial B.C. vaccine passport last week—is a warning from Canada’s cyber spy agency over threats to our democratic processes.

A report in mid July from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) concluded that Canadian voters are likely to face foreign cyber interference both before and after they head to the polls this fall.

While Canada is a lower-priority target relative to other countries, “we assess that an increasing number of threat actors have the cyber tools, the organizational capacity, and a sufficiently advanced understanding of Canada’s political landscape to direct cyber activity against future Canadian elections, should they have the strategic intent,” reads the report.

Examples of potential foreign interference listed in the report include attempts to covertly influence, intimidate, manipulate, interfere, and corrupt or discredit individuals, organizations and governments.

The consequences of this interference, the CSE warns, are quite broad, and in the short term could include amplification of false or polarizing discourse; burying legitimate information; calling into question the legitimacy of the election process and results; reducing voter turnout; and distracting voters from important election issues.

In the longer term, state-sponsored cyber actors aim to reduce the public’s trust in the democratic process; lower trust in journalism and the media; create divisions in international alliances; increase polarization and decrease social cohesion; weaken confidence in leaders; and promote the economic, geopolitical or ideological interests of hostile foreign states.

There’s no way to say if it’s the result of foreign actors, but judging from some of the discourse on social media—and watching the angry protests following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail—it’s clear some of these things are already happening.

The electorate is as disgruntled and polarized as I’ve ever seen it in 10 years in journalism, and rightfully so. Canadians have been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic for a year and a half—financially, physically, mentally and emotionally.

They’re angry at leaders who seem fake and disingenuous; at measures taken to curb the pandemic, or measures they deem not strong enough; at runaway spending and blatant corruption; at inaction on climate change and other issues; at the sheer unfairness of it all.

They’re angry at the media for reporting on COVID, or not reporting the right things about COVID.

They’re just angry, and I can’t say I blame them.

The information age is a double-edged sword. We now have access to constant, in-your-face updates about everything that’s happening in the world… and in recent years, there has been a lot happening.

Maybe humans just weren’t meant to process this much information? 

We can now find info and sources (legitimacy be damned) to prove or disprove any claim.

Conspiracy theorists who would have been brushed off or shunned in their home communities before the days of the internet are now connected to and emboldened by millions of others who share the same views.

The Earth is actually flat. Mass shootings at elementary schools were false flags. Horse dewormer should be taken to cure COVID-19.

Whether or not foreign governments are interfering in our current election campaign or the discourse surrounding the pandemic, we’d all be better off if we could just disconnect.

Yes, COVID is a seemingly-never-ending nightmare. Yes, our leaders and the decisions they make are eternally frustrating. Yes, our media can do better.

And yes, we should absolutely ask questions and hold our leaders to account. But allowing ourselves to get riled up by each new piece of upsetting news—and in turn taking it out on or blaming our fellow citizens—doesn’t serve anyone’s interests. It just polarizes and divides us further. And then the cyber terrorists win.

The CSE report itself is a fascinating, sobering read, and actually quite accessible by government agency standards. (read it here:

The government’s plan to protect against these threats includes four pillars: better preparing citizens; improving organizational readiness; combatting foreign interference; and building a healthy information ecosystem.

My humble advice is also built on four pillars: step away from Facebook and go outside; get involved in your community at a local level, where real change begins; talk to other humans face to face (preferably those with opposing viewpoints); breathe.

The big problems won’t go away in the meantime, but you might find that things aren’t actually as bad as they seemed online. You might even discover common ground with someone you thought was your enemy.

We don’t have to agree with each other, or even like each other. But the least we can do is make an effort to understand each other.

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