A Canadian Armed Forces’ attempt at combating misinformation is now being used by conspiracy theorists as evidence the government conspired about COVID-19.
On Monday, the Ottawa Citizen published a story outlining how a small team within the Canadian Armed Forces' (CAF) Canadian Joint Operations Command briefly planned a domestic intelligence operation in April 2020 regarding COVID-19 information. The scheme was set to be a part of “Operation Laser,” the CAF’s COVID-19 pandemic mission, which was largely assisting long-term care-homes and remote First Nations, among other objectives.
The propaganda plan was to aid the government by "pro-actively mitigating the effects of mis/disinformation." The CAF document, seen by VICE World News and embedded below, said that measures like self-isolation and lockdowns have "resulted in a real and perceived loss of freedom and personal agency from individual Canadians."
"The disempowerment and general context of anxiety will lead to increases in irrational behaviour, which may run counter to the overall response effort and public well-being,” the report reads. "The CAF must support [the government] in mitigating this overall perspective of fear and anxiety to promote and enable a rational fact-based response to this crisis."
The report proposed they would do this by not just supporting the government’s efforts in putting out information but also “shaping, enabling, and exploiting/mitigating” information and “coordinating influence activities.” Essentially the PR officers would “sculpt” the information to ward off civil disobedience.
As far as the plan goes, the one outlined in the document is less nefarious than many would assume; however, in these times when people take horse dewormers for COVID-19 instead of scientifically sound vaccines, that doesn’t matter. The main takeaway that the military was contemplating an intelligence operation upon Canadians is, as one commentator puts it, a “conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.” In QAnon forums, COVID-conspiracy Telegram groups, and, of course, 4chan, it’s being used as “proof”of a greater government COVID-19 conspiracy.
Canadian Armed Forces spokesperson Dan Le Bouthillier told VICE World News they “fully recognize that problematic information operations activities caused reputational damage to DND/CAF.”
“Direction has been issued to improve how the CAF operates in the information environment, while protecting and enhancing public trust,” said Le Bouthillier. “Maintaining the trust of Canadians is critical to the DND/CAF mission. We will strive for continuous improvement and are committed to working tirelessly to maintain this trust.”
Figures that are active in the Canadian COVID-conspiracy movement, such as Maxime Bernier—a Canadian politician who harnessed the anger of the COVID-conspiracy movement into getting 5 percent of the popular vote in last week's election—unsurprisingly jumped on the story.
“Since COVID hysteria started, governments have systematically violated our rights, courts have failed to uphold them, police have enforced illegal rules, and now we learn that the military targeted us with psy-ops,” wrote Bernier on Twitter. “Can we trust ANY of our institutions?”
The proliferation of the military psy-op document into the conspiracy world runs deep. The story was a hot topic in the Telegram group chat for the (Qanon-adjacent) people who believe a British Columbia woman is the Queen of Canada and is slowly executing politicians (who are very much still alive) behind the scenes. It was also shared by the group of “nurses” who were responsible for organizing multiple hospital front protests. And a livestreamer who is part of a Canadian white nationalist vlogging collective dedicated a good portion of his most recent stream to it.
“This is psychological warfare, what I'm seeing in the media, everywhere. This is psychological warfare; this is what we do to people we’re at war with,” he said. “Yup, and it was our own military’s idea.”
Shortly after the original document was published in a fragmentary order that supported Operation Laser, it was flagged by several higher-ups in the CAF questioning the ethics of it, and they shut it down rather quickly. In a report reviewing how the document came to be published, which was provided to VICE World News by the CAF, retired Maj.-Gen. Daniel Gosselin wrote he believed the idea that intelligence operations should be used in almost all CAF operations was widespread.
“I found that in this review the concept of the [propaganda plan] to the Canadian Joint Operations Command operations order was not simply the idea of passionate intelligence officers... The importance of intelligence operations for Canadian Armed Forces operations was clearly a mindset that permeated the thinking at many levels of Canadian Joint Operations Command,” wrote Gosselin. The Ottawa Citizen, who originally broke the story, wrote there is an ongoing battle behind the scenes over the use of intelligence operations domestically.
Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor at Carleton University who recently authored a book on Canadian national security, told VICE World News these kinds of actions “breed mistrust.”
“I don’t understand the logic for looking at that under Operation Laser,” said Carvin. “That doesn't make any sense, like from a force protection issue or anything like that.
“It’s so self-defeating.”
Carvin said this situation may point to the need for a Defence Intelligence Act that would create rules governing domestic operations. In his report, Gosselin noted a lack of structured rules may have played a part in how this occurred.
This isn’t the first time a Canadian military intelligence “operation” has backfired on the forces. In 2020, letters began showing up in mailboxes in Nova Scotia that warned residents of wolves that had been reintroduced to the area and were now roaming and dangerous. The letters were never supposed to fall into the hands of the public; they were a part of a propaganda training exercise designed to test some officers’ ability to control reservists that went awry. While one source told VICE World News that operation was never meant to teach soldiers how to manipulate Canadians domestically, the story still made the rounds in the conspiracy world much like the current one.
In an action much more nefarious than dreaming up fake wolves on the Avalon peninsula, the military actively collected data from Black Lives Matter organizers during their COVID-19 pandemic response. As Carvin and many other experts have pointed out, these kinds of operations and activities are used disproportionately against marginalized groups.
The propaganda scheme is unneeded fuel to the fire of a common conspiracy refrain: that the media and the government are manipulating the information to control the public. It’s a central tenet of the COVID-conspiracy movement, and once accepted by a believer it makes it much harder to bring them back to reality. Researchers have shown once a conspiracy theorist begins to believe that information will be created or manipulated to disprove or prove a theory, they’ve crossed a threshold.
A poll, from earlier this year by the PR firm Edelman found 45 percent of Canadians said they believed the government was trying to mislead them. In a moment like this—when the legitimacy of the public health information provided by official sources is being questioned by a rather sizeable portion of the population—trust is key.
In attempting to combat conspiracy theorists the CAF inadvertently merely handed their opponents yet another cudgel to beat them senseless with.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.