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Could the Toronto Van Attack Be Leveraged to Create a National Security Concern?

Apr 26, 2018
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

On April 23, a van jumped the curb at Yonge Street and Finch Avenue in Toronto, plowing into pedestrians, resulting in the deaths of 10 people and over a dozen injured. The widely lauded actions of a Toronto police officer culminated in the arrest of the van driver without a single shot being fired. The suspect has now been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and multiple counts of attempted murder, but the motivation for the attack is still unclear. A potential connection to a misogynistic group known as “incel” has emerged through a Facebook posting made by the suspect. Based on current evidence, there does not seem to be a national security connection to this incident. However, it is possible for incidents like this to be leveraged and used by others, including nation states, to generate societal friction and amplify divisions, thereby constituting a potential national security threat.

When a major incident occurs, social media comes to the fore, with postings across multiple platforms sharing information, articles, and opinions. One of the disturbing aspects of this particular incident is the speed at which conspiracy theories, particularly those involving anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiments, were shared on platforms like Twitter. These opinions were being shared and distributed well before any facts about the attack had been established. This is a not a new phenomenon and occurs on the back of almost every major mass casualty incident globally.

I regularly examine some of these postings, many of which are shared as comments on the back of major statements, usually by leaders or senior officials. When you dive into some of the accounts used to make these outrageous comments, you’ll find that a good number are new, have few followers, have specific grammatical inconsistencies, and only re-post or share material that supports their viewpoint. These are among the indicators that the accounts may have been created specifically to disseminate “fake news” and mis/disinformation—a tactic that has been employed by some nations like Russia.

In May 2017, The Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for National Security (CNS) held a closed-door event on new technology threats to national security. During that session, we explored the use of “fake news” by nation states to tap into emotional reactions, driving schisms between groups based on reactions to what they post on social media. While there is plenty of debate about the potential impact of these tactics, there is a growing recognition that they could significantly impact democratic processes, by discrediting candidates or polarizing an electorate, for example. Some of these issues were highlighted in a recent Communications Security Establishment report.

The spread of misinformation and disinformation is not limited to social media. Traditional media has also been leveraged to help drive and reinforce these narratives. Russia has been accused of supporting traditional media outlets for this purpose, with the coverage of the Skripal poisoning in the U.K. a prime example of how this works. On the back of the Toronto incident, I was approached for comment by one of these networks—not the first time—trying to get me to support their viewpoints and narrative. Of course, I refused.

For me, this paints a picture of a state actor that is attempting to leverage major incidents in Canada to drive their own narrative, potentially creating and supporting schisms within Canadian society. The challenge that this brings was highlighted recently in a Canadian Security and Intelligence Service publication on the security challenges of modern disinformation. While the Toronto van attack itself is not currently deemed to be a national security incident, how others use the incident to distribute and embed false narratives may well create a larger, secondary national security threat. As devastating as this attack is, we may be dealing with a more nefarious problem—one that is leveraging these incidents as a platform to attack Canadian society.

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