Varcoe: Foreign bots and trolls wade into Canada’s pipeline wars


Anyone who has glanced at a story about energy development in Canada these days knows it doesn’t take long for social media trolls to swarm about like angry wasps at a picnic.

It has led to a bitter divide with two solitudes scrapping over issues such as oil development, fracking, the need for pipelines and climate action.

“Whenever I get frustrated with what’s going on on social media, watching Twitter and Facebook … you think, ‘My God, what is going on here, why can’t we get along?’ ” federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said Tuesday at the Energy Futures Lab Summit in Calgary.

“What I am hearing on social media is not the reality of people.”

There’s a good reason reality isn’t accurately reflected on Facebook or Twitter posts when it comes to such issues.

It’s often an illusion, with the polarization being deliberately over-amplified by social media trolls and bots.

An illuminating CBC report this week analyzed more than 21,000 tweets from so-called troll accounts deleted by Twitter that had set their sights on Canada, including the pipeline debate.

The report pegged 245 accounts for re-tweeting messages about pipeline stories, such as the battle over the Keystone XL project, circulating media articles and re-tweeting accounts from anti-oilsands activists.

According to the report, the foreign accounts are suspected of being based in Iran, Russia and Venezuela.

It’s likely no coincidence these countries produce large amounts of oil and gas. Twitter bots looking to fan the flames of division would have an obvious self-interest in seeing Canada’s resources remain landlocked amid infighting within this country.

“These foreign interests are trying to shape public opinion here in order to influence government decision-making to harm our natural resource industry,” said Conservative MP Jamie Schmale, the party’s deputy natural resources critic.

“This has to be stopped.”

I doubt it can be stomped out easily (although Twitter and Facebook are trying) but what’s just as important is to identify the practice in the first place and shine a light on the matter.

A few hours after lamenting the polarization over the country’s energy development, Sohi was asked about the effect of these foreign actors on social media trying to sway Canadian policy debate.

“It’s always concerning when you have people from outside of your country trying to influence the decision-making. There is a legitimate way of doing that, and that’s through diplomacy and other venues and avenues,” Sohi told reporters.

“Misinformation and information that is not based on facts is never healthy for any democratic process to take place.”

The CBC report comes less than a year after a U.S. House of Representatives committee study pointed the finger at Russian players attempting to shape debate on energy and pipelines in America through social media.

There are also important questions being raised by researcher Vivian Krause about foreign funds flowing from U.S. groups to anti-pipeline forces in Canada, in an overt attempt to stop the fossil fuel sector in its tracks.

I’m not naive enough to think Canada has attained unanimity on contentious issues such as approving major industrial projects, regulating pipelines (including the debate over Bill C-69) or meeting our climate-change goals.

Protesters opposed to the Trans Mountain expansion project prevent a truck from leaving the Kinder Morgan facility in Burnaby on April 28, 2018.

Protests in Burnaby over the Trans Mountain expansion — now owned by the government of Canada — or the pro-pipeline rallies across Canada illustrate that deep divisions exist.

Yet, we shouldn’t be so trusting to think outside forces aren’t trying to manipulate the debate to their own ends, and to Canada’s detriment.

We also shouldn’t give up on building energy developments deemed to be in the national interest, such as the Trans Mountain expansion or the LNG Canada development.

“The very unfortunate situation that we’re facing in our country is the ongoing polarization around energy. It doesn’t have to be that way,” Sohi told the crowd in Calgary.

“Our strength as Canadians (is) when we start, not ignoring, but understanding the polarization is happening on the fringes of the conversation.”

The fringes shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the landscape and block every pipeline project from moving ahead, either.

A poll last month by the Angus Reid Institute highlighted the majority of Canadians — almost two-thirds — identified oil and gas as one of the most critical economic sectors to the entire country.

Rally in downtown Calgary in support of the TransCanada Coastal GasLink pipeline on Jan. 8, 2019.

It found 69 per cent of Canadians say the country will face a considerable or significant economic impact if no new oil pipelines are built.

And 52 per cent support both the Trans Mountain and now-cancelled Energy East project being constructed, while 19 per cent oppose both.

There are divisions by gender, age and region, but polls show support is growing in Canada for projects such as Trans Mountain.

Shachi Kurl, the institute’s executive director, noted three-quarters of Canadians view climate change as posing a serious threat to the planet, while 60 per cent believe the lack of new oil pipelines represents a crisis in the country.

“When we talk about the energy debate, there is tremendous polarization, but we are also starting to see the needle move on certain files that is getting us to a more consensus-oriented place,” she added.

“The people on the extremes of the debate . . . tend to capture the most attention.”

Canada is facing a heated debate when it comes to issues such as pipelines and oil and gas development.

But let’s also consider the sources of the friction when deciding what’s in the best interests of Canadians and how we develop our energy in the future.

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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