Disinformation is the 'threat of a generation,' but Canada is struggling to deal with it: National security adviser

Advancements in artificial intelligence have pushed disinformation and misinformation campaigns to a new level of effectiveness and covertness

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OTTAWA – AI-powered misinformation and disinformation campaigns is a “threat of a generation” but the government’s ability to do anything about it is “quite limited,” says the prime minister’s national security adviser.

Jody Thomas delivered a bleak picture about the growing fight against misinformation and disinformation worldwide during a speech at a Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) event Friday.

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She said that advancements in artificial intelligence have pushed disinformation and misinformation campaigns to a new level of effectiveness and covertness thanks to technologies like digitally modified “deepfake” videos.

Thomas, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser, noted misinformation campaigns are being used namely by hostile states, such as China and Russia, to peddle “blatant lies” and undermine Canadian institutions. But as the campaigns grow in sophistication, the Canadian government and its Western counterparts are still scrambling to figure out how to counter them.

“People are misinformed, they are lied to. And it is deliberate, and in some cases, it is state-driven, certainly state-amplified by hostile states, and it is not to be underestimated. And the solutions are neither easy nor inexpensive, and I don’t actually know what the solutions are,” Thomas told the crowd.

“It is persistent and it is pervasive and it is constant and it’s faster than any of us can do anything about it at this point in time,” she added.

“Solutions to understand the origins and how to stop it and what to do about it and how to inform when something is very blatantly untrue is the challenge of the moment,” she said. “Our ability to do anything about it is quite limited and so it is an enormous focus of the Clerk of the Privy Council’s right now.”

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One recent example is an elaborate, Chinese-backed foreign interference spam campaign targeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and dozens of MPs that used deepfake videos to falsely accuse them of criminal activity.

In October, the Canadian government said that a network of both new and hijacked X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook accounts left thousands of comments on MPs’ accounts falsely claiming that a known critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accused them of “criminal and ethical violations throughout the summer. ”

But the claims in the posts were fake and the campaign was connected to the Chinese government.

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Thomas said disinformation isn’t new, but it can have long-lasting consequences. She pointed to the fact many still believe the long-dispelled myth that the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack came to the U.S. from Canada.

“The harm that is caused is remarkable. 9/11, the idea that those terrorists came from Canada, that still persists in some corners,” she said. 

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Speaking on China, Thomas said that the country is a threat in many ways — sometimes “clumsy and very overt,” such as operating “covert” police stations on Canadian soil, and sometimes “very sophisticated.” 

But she also noted Canada has to maintain a trade relationship with the emerging economic superpower. 

“(China) is a threat and there is a lot of time and money being spent to ensure that we are countering the threat as best we can,” she said. 

“But I don’t think anything is black and white. There has to be a trade relationship, there’s a people-to-people relationship because we have a huge Chinese diaspora.” 

Is the growing menace from foreign countries as well as the crumbling of the current world order enough to justify a Canadian foreign intelligence agency going forward? 

No, Thomas said.

“It’s not on the policy agenda. It may need to be … but I’d still rather focus on the modernization of the CSIS Act than standing up a new agency,” she said. “I think we can do more modernizing the tools that we have available to us now.”

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