Anti-authority narratives could tear ‘fabric of society,’ intelligence report warns

Threats against politicians have become “increasingly normalized” due to extremist narratives prompted by personal grievances and fuelled by misinformation or deliberate lies, warns a newly released intelligence report.

The report, prepared by a federal task force that aims to safeguard elections, says the Canadian violent extremist landscape has seen the proliferation of conspiracy theories, a growing lack of trust in the integrity of the state and more political polarization.

Baseless theories, disinformation and misinformation have spread to larger audiences, exposing online users to a vast network of narratives that undermine science, systems of government and traditional figures of authority, the report says.

“Violent rhetoric routinely fixates on elected officials — with particular hostility towards high-profile women.”

The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain the June 2023 report by the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force. Some passages in the “Secret / Canadian Eyes Only” assessment were considered too sensitive to release.

The federal body, established in 2019 to protect the electoral process from foreign interference, includes representatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyberspy agency.

The report notes that while domestic terrorism threats are not strictly part of the task force’s focus on foreign meddling, “we recognize the need to provide assessments on this issue.”

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The task force weighed the possible threat from violent extremism driven by politics, religion and ideology. It concluded that of the three, a Canadian federal election would “most likely be impacted” by ideologically motivated violent extremism.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” worldview for ideological extremism, the report says. Rather, “threat actors” are driven by a range of grievances, ideas and highly personalized narratives from across the traditional left-to-right-wing spectrum, often deeply influenced by conspiracy theories.

Grievances may be fuelled by elements including xenophobia, gender-related issues or general anti-government sentiment.

Threat growing outside of campaigns

It says while threats against politicians peak during election cycles or major political announcements, RCMP information showed that monthly and annual averages had remained relatively stable since September 2021.

Ideologically motivated violent extremists “have increasingly normalized threats against prominent public figures outside the election cycle,” the report concludes.

All threats to the prime minister and other parliamentarians reported to the RCMP are triaged and assessed for a link to national security, the task force adds. About 20 per cent of reported threats to the prime minister and 13 per cent of those against parliamentarians between September 2021 and mid-2023 met the RCMP’s national security threshold.

While extremist narratives and conspiracy theories do not usually manifest themselves as an act of serious violence, “they have the potential to negatively affect the fabric of Canadian society,” the report says.

The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

CSIS spokesperson Eric Balsam said the 2023 assessment “remains unchanged.”

CSIS director David Vigneault told a House of Commons committee this month the spy service is devoting about half of its counter-terrorism resources to investigate the threat of ideologically motivated violent extremism. “We’ve seen a number of the threat vectors increasing,” he said.

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The task force report says anti-authority extremists have “almost certainly leveraged” social media posts about foreign interference in Canadian elections to “reinforce pre-existing narratives around the inherent corruption of government institutions in Canada.”

However, a narrative on the scale of the “stolen election” rhetoric that prompted the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol has not emerged in the Canadian political landscape, the report notes.

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