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HomeCanada’s Role on the Global StageCounter-disinformation Canadian-style – poorly conceived, badly executed

Counter-disinformation Canadian-style – poorly conceived, badly executed

By Paul Robinson

The past few years have witnessed a growing obsession with the alleged dangers of “disinformation,” particularly that said to come from Russia. In response, Western governments have sponsored a large industry of organizations designed to counter efforts to deceive their populations. Canada is now set to join them, Prime Minister Trudeau having announced that his government plans to set up a special team devoted to countering Russian disinformation and propaganda.

This is unlikely to be a productive enterprise. Some psychological research indicates that exposing disinformation doesn’t convince people that it is false and may even have the opposite result. Those who are inclined to distrust authority do not believe what it tells them about truth or untruth – indeed, the fact that the distrusted authority is telling them something is untrue may even strengthen their belief that it is the opposite, and the very repetition of the false information may reinforce it in people’s minds. A meta-analysis of debunking studies concluded that debunking “often inadvertently strengthen[s] the misinformation,” particularly when lacking in detail, but that even a “detailed debunking message also correlated positively with the misinformation-persistence effect.” Furthermore, the term disinformation is much abused. Strictly speaking, it refers to information that is not only untrue but which is known to be untrue, but which is nevertheless spread due to a malign intent to deceive. But much of what is designated disinformation is more accurately “misinformation” – in other words, false but not known to be false and not spread with malign intent. Much alleged “disinformation” also falls within the category of opinion, there being a tendency to believe that one’s opinions are “truth” and that contrary views are objectively false. The labelling of things as disinformation serves to stifle contrary opinions and legitimate public debate. If one was a cynic, one might even think that that was the point.

Were counter-disinformation organizations careful with how they use the term, and were their members very knowledgeable about the subjects they discuss, they might produce decent analyses. Unfortunately, they have a bad record in this regard. Rather than being neutral guardians of the truth, they tend to be guardians of a given version of the “truth,” presenting biased and inaccurate pictures of what others are saying. They also tend to display poor knowledge of the chosen topics, and the intellectual standard of their analyses can be painfully low. Consequently, their output is often so poor that it deceives the public rather than enlightens it.

An example is the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), whose reports contain a number of provably false assertions. For instance, a GEC report entitled RT and Sputnik’s Role in Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem provided a link to an article published in RT as evidence of “disinformation narratives describing the Ukrainian government […] as either fascist or Nazis.” Yet the linked article specifically said that “Ukraine remains a relatively free and open society. It’s not remotely fascist,” in other words, the exact opposite of what the GEC claimed it said. The irony of a report denouncing “false narratives” itself spreading false narratives is striking.

This is far from a unique case. A study by British academics of the European Union’s anti-disinformation organization EUvsDisinfo revealed serious shortcomings including “blatant distortion.” “Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation according to [its] own definition of the term,” the study concluded.

Previous counter-disinformation work by the Canadian government suggests that its new organization is unlikely to prove any better. This can already be seen through a government webpage entitled “Countering disinformation with facts,” which lists “Russia’s false claims” and then seeks to counter them with “facts.” Unfortunately, many of the “facts” used to rebut the “false claims” are completely irrelevant to the claims themselves. For instance, the website counters a Russian statement that its air assets have targeted Ukrainian military positions by citing the completely irrelevant fact that “Russia’s air force has failed to establish air supremacy over Ukraine.” But the latter does not in any way preclude the former.

Examples of misleading information abound on the Canadian government’s website. These include a rebuttal of a Russian claim to have achieved the operational encirclement of the Ukrainian town of Lysychansk by means of a statement that “Ukraine continues to control the city of Lysychansk.” Though true at the time of writing, this response didn’t negate the claim of operational encirclement and in any case ceased to be true very shortly afterwards and thus misrepresented the military situation. Another example is a rebuttal of a Russian “false claim” that “NATO promised Russia not to expand after the Cold War” with the statement that “NATO has never made such an agreement.” But the Russian argument has never been that NATO itself promised not to expand. Rather, Russians argue that high-ranking officials of certain NATO countries promised not to do so, an assertion that some Western historians, on the basis of archival evidence, believe to be true. At any rate, given its disputed nature, the claim cannot definitively be designated false, and deeming it as such is deceitful.

Given the past record in this area, it would probably be best if the Canadian government reconsidered its plan. It is doubtful that it has the expertise or objectivity to do a decent job. If the new organization’s work is on the same level as previous efforts, it is likely to do more harm than good. Unfortunately, while we have a good idea of what doesn’t work in countering disinformation, we have very little idea of what, if anything, does work. Much more research needs to be conducted. Supporting such research would be a more useful undertaking for the Government of Canada than rushing into ventures of unproven worth.

Paul Robinson is a Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at IPD.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor