Wolves, social media & tactics from Afghanistan: Canadians should be worried about their government’s bizarre psyops exercises
Throughout 2020, Canada’s Armed Forces have allegedly engaged in information warfare campaigns seemingly seeking to emulate Britain’s secretive 77th Brigade. This should trouble ordinary Canadians.
A series of unsettling and bizarre developments have unfolded under the radar north of the 49th parallel of late. Canadian soldiers have engaged in information warfare, or attempted to, against their own citizens, without apparent official approval.
In the latest example of this troubling phenomenon, Canada’s military has reportedly drawn up plans to establish an online psychological operations division, in the manner of Britain’s secretive psywar outfit 77th Brigade, however, officially at least, the defense minister is having none of it. Given the Brigade’s recent domestically-focused activities in the UK, one can only hope his resistance is sincere, and enduring.
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Leaked documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen indicate the Canadian Armed Forces have drawn up plans for a unit that would use “propaganda and other techniques to influence attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.”
Dubbed the ‘Defense Strategic Communication Group’, it’s intended to advance “national interests by using defense activities” to achieve behavioural change at home and abroad.
For example, personal social media accounts of select Canadian Forces staff would be used to disseminate pre-approved government and military propaganda. While the content would give every appearance of being ‘organic’, it would in fact be covertly crafted and coordinated by military officers.
Academics, military veterans and other public figures active on social media would also be asked to participate, pushing pre-approved propaganda messaging on social networks and in personal interactions with journalists, among other things.
The proposal follows a program of “weaponization” of the Canadian military’s Public Affairs branch, begun in 2015 by Chief of Defense Staff General Jon Vance and mentioned in a 2017 long-term defense strategy document.
Since then Canadian soldiers have been trained at a cost of over US$1 million in ‘Behavioural Dynamics Methodology’, the controversial and scientifically dubious creation of SCL Group, parent of disgraced and defunct political campaign firm Cambridge Analytica.
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In response to requests for comment from the Ottawa Citizen, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office denied Defense Strategic Communication Group will be going ahead, his press secretary Floriane Bonneville claiming “no such plan has been approved, nor will it be.”
However, the outlet reports that a series of town hall discussions were conducted in the week prior on the precise strategies contained in the draft plan, and several of its suggested techniques have already apparently been employed against the Canadian public.
For instance, the proposal advocates the creation of an innovative research capability to analyze and collect information from the social media accounts of Canadians, non-governmental organizations, private business and news outlets and it’s been confirmed the Armed Forces tested this out during the pandemic.
A team from the military’s intelligence unit monitored and harvested social media comments across Ontario relating to the provincial government’s failure to adequately care for the elderly. The data, collected without account holders’ knowledge or consent, was then analysed and the findings provided to the provincial government in Toronto.
It was claimed the data-mining was necessary to help military operatives working in care homes during the coronavirus pandemic. Why are the public’s opinions on authorities’ handling of the pandemic relevant to the military’s care for the elderly? What did they do with the data? These questions have still not been satisfactorily answered.
Since its exposure, Sajjan has launched an investigation into the operation, and placed a temporary pause on all military influence activities, implying he may have been unaware of its execution in advance. But given the significant controversy caused by previous Canadian military info war endeavours, attempted or aborted, one has to ask why they remain so determined in their quest to launch such operations.
For example, in July, it was revealed Canadian Joint Operations Command had planned a propaganda campaign to counteract predicted public unrest during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.
Planning documents, released after concerned military officials voiced dismay about the operation to local media, indicate the effort would have involved “shaping” and “exploiting” information to strengthen trust in official sources to deter Canadians from “participating in civil disobedience” and reinforce “compliance with suppression measures.”
The campaign would’ve combined traditional public relations and communications methods, employed by an army of “influence activity” specialists within and without the military, as well as various other techniques, in order to effectively relay government messages to the public.
Even more shockingly, if civil disorder hit high enough levels, military vehicles with loudspeakers would have been deployed to blare out those messages into the streets. Something the Canadian military has done before… in Afghanistan. However, Defense Chief Vance put a stop to the campaign when he learned of it, claiming information operations tactics shouldn’t be used in a domestic context, except in the event of enemy invasion.
Despite that, in a bizarre episode in October, a letter was delivered to residents of Nova Scotia, apparently from the local government, warning of packs of wolves on the loose in the province, sparking much panic and confusion in the region. This turned out to be a forgery and, allegedly, part of an elaborate military training exercise carried out by the Halifax Rifles reserves. But it seems they may have over done it by attributing the letter to an actual government employee – without permission, sparking an official investigation.
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Military sources claim the operation was an effort to train officers to detect the howl of wolves in forest terrain, and on top of producing fake letters warning of a dangerous canine outbreak, loudspeakers were set up to emit wolf noises in a barren area of Nova Scotia. In turn, other troops practiced how to quickly and effectively erect loudspeakers for the purpose of emitting propaganda in a warzone.
Academic Emma Briant, military propaganda research specialist, told Canada’s National Post she wasn’t convinced by the convoluted explanation, suggesting it was instead an insidious effort to manipulate the local population with false information, and see how they reacted.
If Briant’s suspicions are accurate, then further doubt can only be cast on Defense Chief Vance’s stated injunction against such activities within Canada. Just look at the British government’s long-held position that military propaganda operations aren’t conducted within the UK itself. If that is the case then why, during the pandemic, have the 77th Brigade’s information warfare crosshairs turned inwards?
At a Downing Street coronavirus briefing in April, General Nick Carter, the UK’s most senior military officer, revealed 77th Brigade was “helping to quash rumors from misinformation, but also counter disinformation” online. There are clear indications these activities amount to disseminating pro-government messages and attacking voices critical of Whitehall’s handling of the crisis – the target audience being British citizens.
Additionally, the British state has long-considered Scottish independence a danger to national security, the movement consistently penetrated and surveilled by security services. In 2019, Scottish National Party MP Douglas Chapman accused the 77th Brigade of “working against” the SNP’s elected representatives and the party’s members. He alleged the unit was working in a “highly organised” manner, “attacking and undermining” Scottish democracy. If Chapman’s charges are accurate, in a future independence referendum, it seems inconceivable the Brigade will remain neutral.
Given that Canada also has a separatist movement, in Quebec, it wouldn’t be too much of a leap to suspect Ottawa may try to emulate the British. The provincial government has previously held two referendums on regional sovereignty, and in the October 2019 federal election, the French-speaking province overwhelmingly abandoned Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party, voters turning in droves to left-wing party Bloc Quebecois, which has-long called for total independence from the rest of the country.
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Despite official denials that the Defense Strategic Communication Group has been or ever will be approved, the Canadian Armed Forces gives every appearance of being determined to push full steam ahead in its “weaponization” drive, with or without official consent, no matter the public disgrace and dishonor courted. If the group or a similar entity is established, that its purview will by design extend to the domestic sphere regardless of official denials, is almost inarguable.
Once that comes to pass, it’ll be yet another Western government-run information warfare operation among countless others, yet another reason why citizens the world over can’t trust anything they read on the internet, yet another force within and without its home territory manipulating perceptions and perspectives, insidiously influencing democratic choices in the process. All without express civilian sanction, or any degree of public scrutiny whatsoever. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
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