O’Toole says Chinese interference in 2021 election flipped conservative constituencies – but experts urge caution

Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole says foreign interference from China in the last election cost her party seats. But some media and national security experts are pushing back, arguing that it is difficult to conclusively prove interference and that any intervention is unlikely to have been so decisive.

O’Toole commented on the influence of the Chinese state during an interview on Radio Canada The House, aired Saturday. He told host Chris Hall that while the level of interference he describes would not have changed the overall outcome of the election, it did have an effect in several key areas, including the Lower Mainland of the British Columbia and some ridings in Toronto.

When asked for evidence that the interference was decisive, O’Toole cited his party’s internal review of the election but did not share further details. The Tories did not respond to a request for comment on O’Toole’s claims or provide further evidence to support the claim.

Earlier this month, the party told the Politico newspaper he had nothing to add on the subject.

O’Toole spoke specifically about the WeChat platform, a social media and messaging app developed by Chinese multinational Tencent. He said misinformation about conservatives spread across the platform and turned many voters against conservatives.

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Some of that amounted to “voter suppression”, he said. “People were worried about showing up on a voters list as having voted if a Tory won.”

O’Toole said his campaign had been in touch with CSIS before and during the campaign on the issue of interference and that he had asked the national intelligence agency to go public with what they knew.

CSIS declined to comment for this story, instead referring to a statement sent to CBC News earlier in the month. In this, an agency spokesperson pointed to a task force set up to monitor interference, which made no public announcements related to the election. The threshold for an announcement is whether there is a substantial threat to “a free and fair election,” according to the National Security Policy.

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment. Asked in December about his activities in relation to Huawei, Ambassador Cong Peiwu denied that China engages in espionage.

“China, we don’t do that kind of stuff, you know, spying or electronic surveillance. It’s the United States that has been doing that kind of stuff for the last few decades,” he said. .

No evidence of influential and decisive campaign: report

O’Toole stressed that the level of interference he describes would not have changed the overall outcome of the election. But he told Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith in a podcast it had proved decisive in no less than nine constituencies. Former Tory MP Kenny Chiu, for example, argued misinformation played a part in his downfall.

O’Toole also said he hadn’t been more outspoken on the issue because he thought CSIS would alert the public and he didn’t want it to sound like “sour grapes.”

“We should demand better defense against this interference in the next federal election.”

Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in April 2021. He said misinformation played a part in his losing his seat. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But some experts doubt the interference was as coordinated and decisive as O’Toole suggests. The Media Ecosystem Observatory, a joint project between the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, published a report in March on the issue of disinformation in 2021.

The report noted that anti-conservative misinformation was spreading on China-based social media platforms, such as a claim that conservatives would sever diplomatic ties with China if elected.

But Aengus Bridgman, director of the Media Ecosystem Observatory, said his organization found no evidence of an influential and coordinated campaign.

“Maybe [the Conservatives] have data that points to something very decisive that they found in internal polls,” he said. “But I would be surprised.

He said that while there is clearly anti-conservative misinformation on Chinese-language social media, his group has found no evidence of systematic attempts to amplify and spread these messages.

Bridgman said his work did not rule out the idea that interference might have had an effect on margins, but said it was unlikely that was the factor that tipped eight or nine precincts against the conservatives.

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“I don’t mean it’s completely impossible, but I think you have to have a bar for the evidence,” he said.

Bridgman said that in general his group found minimal evidence of foreign interference. He also urged Canadians not to automatically distrust people who get their news from other countries or in different languages.

Conclusive evidence of elusive interference: expert

Akshay Singh, international affairs and security specialist and non-resident fellow at the Council on International Policy, said it can be difficult to establish conclusively whether there was interference, in part because Canada is not does not have the same legislative framework as a country. like the United States.

“A lot of times there’s a lot of smoke and there’s not enough indication of fire,” he said.

The difficulty of proving interference may also arise in part because it is difficult to distinguish between genuine beliefs and the direction of an outside government, Singh noted.

“You don’t always have to instruct specific groups, if you’re a foreign government, to vote a specific way or not. Because some of those groups implicitly understand what’s in the interest of this country or not and in that of their own group interests or not,” he said.

Singh said China’s “united front” system, a political strategy aimed at influencing Chinese communities around the world, is a key example of this dynamic.

“You don’t have to be led into these spaces, these groups, to proactively decide [support China’s interests]. And as such, it can be very difficult to prove foreign interference because there is no clandestine or deceptive direction.”

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