Defence Watch Guest Writer
Recent news reports have shown the Canadian Armed Forces are struggling to define ethical boundaries as they expand their capability to meet the rising threats of the information age.
A global information war is now being fought in a “grey zone” where malign state and non-state actors are trying to sow confusion and division across the international community.
American professor of strategy and author Sean McFate writes that future military victories “will be won and lost in the information space, not on the physical battlefield.” But he warns that “some democracies may be tempted to sacrifice their values in the name of victory.”
Recent mishaps by Canada's military underscore this temptation.
In April, the Ottawa Citizen published this headline: “Canadian Forces ‘information operations' pandemic campaign quashed after details revealed to top general.”
The article reported that the “IO” campaign was targeted at Canadians and “called for ‘shaping' and ‘exploiting' information” with the aim of maintaining civil order and ensuring “public compliance with suppression measures” during the coronavirus pandemic.
A parallel effort involved the “data mining” of personal social media accounts in Ontario by a team assigned to military intelligence. The military shared data with the province, including findings that some of its citizens were unhappy about its response to the pandemic.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan ordered a review of the information operations campaign and an investigation into the legality of the data-mining activities.
Given the Canadian Armed Forces were tasked with helping the provinces of Quebec and Ontario deal with the cruel impact of the coronavirus in long-term care homes, it is disquieting that such a campaign would be contemplated, let alone put in writing.
Chief of the defence staff General Jon Vance reportedly avowed that, “as long as he was in charge information operations tactics wouldn't be used in a domestic situation, except in the case where an enemy had invaded the country.”
Despite the defence chief's promise, only six months later the armed forces were caught conducting a disinformation campaign on Canada's Atlantic coast.
Under the headline, “Canadian Soldiers Cry Wolf, Alarming Residents,” the New York Times reported that a military psychological training exercise had “gone wrong,” and that a “fake disinformation exercise had become a real one.”
For reasons as yet unexplained, military personnel circulated a forged letter from the province of Nova Scotia warning certain residents to be wary of a wandering wolfpack, backed by loudspeakers blaring the sounds of growling wolves.
It took some time for the armed forces to accept responsibility and apologize. Meanwhile, baffled local officials assured affected residents the province had not issued the letter and there were no wolves in the area.
The defence minister rightly supports training the military “on how best to respond to foreign actors who use influence activities.” But to avoid further mistakes he ordered such training paused until an investigation into the wayward wolfpacks was concluded.
Emma Briant, a US-based British academic and author who specializes in propaganda and political communication, told the New York Times she finds the recent incidents “appalling,” a “failure of governance,” a “failure to ensure restraint,” and a “failure to ensure ethics are built into training and planning operations.”
“They seem to have introduced a policy of weaponization of influence, domestically,” Briant observes. Instead, she advises, Canada's military needs to be building “a relationship of trust with the public.”
The military's pattern of ethical breaches appears to reveal an embedded operational mindset fixed on tactics, as opposed to a strategic one focussed on building public trust.
British military historian Hew Strachan wrote that armed forces are attracted to the operational level of war, as opposed to the strategic. It allows them to “appropriate what they see as the acme of their professional competence,” enabling them to operate in “a politics free zone.”
This may in part explain General Vance's decision in 2015 to “operationalize” the military's public affairs branch, which is responsible for public communication. The branch was seen as not delivering tangible “effects” in support of so-called “operations in the information environment.”
By operationalizing a strategic function like public affairs, the military was in effect reducing it to an operational or tactical capability, like special operations forces or precision-guided missiles. Ostensibly, these can deliver precise, tangible “effects” under direct military control.
Some of the perils of this new approach were exposed when a senior public affairs officer, Brig.-Gen Jay Janzen (then a colonel), began using his Twitter account to target journalists, commentators, and politicians.
In April 2018, for instance, he sparked a heated Twitter exchange with opposition defence critic James Bezan. The defence committee had been debating a military deployment to Mali to help defeat cancerous African offshoots of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Janzen tweeted that questions about the mission from opposition Members of Parliament were “nonsensical.” He even proposed “better” questions for opposition parties to ask.
For a serving senior officer to publicly criticize elected officials was unprecedented. Government ministers must have been perplexed to see a high-ranking service member tweeting better debate questions to opposition MPs.
Janzen's tweets, which appear to have at least the tacit approval of his superiors, set an example for other service members.
Another perplexing public information moment occurred last April when the Canadian military reported that a Canadian frigate patrolling off the Greek coast had “lost contact” with its Cyclone maritime helicopter.
It was later revealed the helicopter was moments from landing on the ship when, as the CBC reported, “it went down in full view of horrified shipmates.” Tragically, all six aboard the Cyclone were killed in the crash.
The military was widely criticized for misrepresenting the facts—contact was in fact never “lost” and officials failed to explain the miscommunication.
Some practitioners of public affairs and information operations have been telling their military bosses that with scientific techniques like “target audience analysis” they can change people's perceptions and behaviours with astounding precision.
Canada's defence department recently paid over a million dollars to Emic Consulting Limited (whose founder worked at the UK's controversial and now defunct Strategic Communication Laboratories) to teach public affairs officers and others how to conduct “actor and audience analysis” and otherwise weaponize behavioural science.
But is this training being misapplied?
One aim of information operations is to change the perceptions and behaviours of target audiences using a range of influence techniques, including “psychological” and “deception” operations.
As the defence chief alluded, such techniques should not be approved for use in Canada, other than in exceptional circumstances against clearly defined foes, such as terrorists.
Military public affairs, by contrast, is about ensuring Canada's armed forces follow federal communications policy, which calls for maintaining “public trust,” and directs that federal communications “must be objective, factual, non-partisan, clear, and written in plain language.”
In a free and democratic society, public trust is a priceless strategic “effect.”
As malign actors seek to create confusion and division, Canadians need trusted sources of information. Surveys consistently show that Canadians trust their military. Military leaders and their public affairs advisors must preserve this trust.
As called for in defence policy, Canada's armed forces do need the tools to wage information and cyber warfare. They are already facing such threats on missions overseas.
But the armed forces also need the tools to communicate with Canadians and other friendly audiences in a timely, truthful, and accurate fashion.
Transparency is a potent democratic deterrent against disinformation.
Informed by the investigations into recent mishaps, the defence minister and chief of the defence staff should consider the following:
o To ensure that information operations have proper approvals and oversight, and are conducted ethically, robust policy, doctrine, and governance are essential.
o To ensure broad awareness of ethical considerations when conducting influence activities, related training and education needs to be incorporated at all rank levels.
o To explain their actions and help build public trust, the armed forces need to field uniformed spokespersons more often. (The military's “chief spokesman” cited by the New York Times in the “wolves” story was a civilian.)
o To ensure coherent doctrine and effective implementation of information-related capabilities, a professional total force cadre of practitioners should be created.
o Military public affairs must be reinvigorated as a strategic capability that promotes transparency, provides unhindered advice to commanders at all levels, and ensures close coordination with the civilian communication arms of government.
o Policy and doctrine, along with leaders, operators, and information practitioners, must clearly differentiate between activities intended to inform Canadians, such as public affairs, and information operations designed to influence or deceive adversaries.
Fighting disinformation is a serious whole-of-nation challenge. It requires an informed public, ethical and transparent government, an engaged private sector, a vigorous and valued free press, and armed forces that respect and reflect Canadian values.