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Despite ‘perfect storm’ of U.S. discord, America’s truths trump foreign fictions

WASHINGTON — The confluence of a pandemic, a raucous civil-rights movement, an economy on the brink and a stubborn, deeply divided electorate: experts call it a “perfect storm” of conditions in which to sow the seeds of disinformation and partisan strife in the United States.

Too perfect, in fact.

Given the hard lessons of the 2016 U.S. election, it’s safe to assume that bad actors, foreign and domestic alike, are already hard at work trying to take full advantage of the discord, said Jed Willard, a Harvard University expert on information warfare.

But much of the work is being done for them — partisan battles over masks, economic lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protests, inflamed by joblessness and uncertainty, have ripped more holes in America’s social fabric than any disinformation peddlers could ever hope to do themselves.

“On masking, it is extremely silly, it’s extremely dangerous,” Willard said of the culture clash that has divided Americans over wearing face coverings to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

It’s also extremely outlandish and implausible — too much so, in fact, for foreign disinformation agents in Russia and China. They have focused more on convincing westerners the virus is a man-made bioweapon, a storyline that never took root despite its familiar, Hollywood-friendly frame.

“What happened in the United States is that our own domestic misinformation was so much more effective at exploiting the real divisions in our society, that the foreign actors just amplified it,” Willard said.

“They didn’t bother pushing their master narratives, which is weird for them. They just went with what we were already doing to ourselves.”

On cue, straight from the stranger-than-fiction files came Rep. Louie Gohmert, an anti-mask Republican from Texas who tested positive last week for the “Wuhan virus,” then promptly blamed his diagnosis on having been forced to wear a face-covering to do his job on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve worn a mask in the last week or two more than I have in the last four months,” constantly fiddling with it for comfort, Gohmert said on Twitter. “I can’t help but wonder if that put some germs in the mask.”

Gabrielle Lim, a researcher with the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, spends her time looking for ways disinformation aimed at undermining democracy is being injected into the U.S. public discourse.

For her team, the politicization of masks has been just another day at the office.

“Things are so weird already that this didn’t seem bizarre,” Lim said. “It’s sad that it’s become a weirdly partisan issue when it should never have been a partisan issue. And now, it’s become a lightning rod for people to state which side of the aisle they’re on.”

But there’s an upside, she added: it’s harder for foreign actors to actually disrupt anything that’s already so disrupted.

“Evidence of activity is not evidence of impact,” Lim said. “It’s really, really hard to figure out what the actual impact is.”

That won’t stop trolls from trying, U.S. officials warn.

“The coronavirus pandemic and recent protests … continue to serve as fodder for foreign influence and disinformation efforts in America,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned last month.

“Foreign nations continue to use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process.”

So, too, however, does Trump himself, who suggested for the first time publicly Thursday that the November contest be delayed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.”

The president, of course, lacks the power to do any such thing. But that hasn’t stopped him before — indeed, Trump and his followers have proven powerful agents of disinformation since long before he moved into the White House.

Back in May, it was largely domestic Trump supporters and pro-gun groups in the U.S. who lured Americans out of their homes and into the streets, where they massed in front of state legislatures to demand the right to resume their lives and open their businesses, COVID-19 be damned.

Such plain-sight domestic discord obscures foreign interference happening in real time, particularly when the agents of that interference are so practised at making it blend with authentic public discourse — successfully winning credible media coverage, for instance.

In her 2018 book “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President,” University of Pennsylvania communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson documented Russia’s 2016 efforts, successful ones, she concludes, to sway the election that put Trump in office.

And they were busy long before that election year, working to alter discourse in the U.S. on issues fraught with potential for conspiracy theorists — genetically modified organisms, vaccination and the next-generation cellphone technology known  as 5G, to name a few, she said.

“Where do I assume they are right now? I assume they’re feeding conspiracy theories about vaccination to discredit a U.S. (COVID-19) vaccine. But do I know that? No,” Jamieson said in an interview.

“Do I assume it’s likely given their past behaviour? Yes. Do I assume they’re probably feeding conspiracy theories about 5G? Yes. Anyplace they can discredit something that is a U.S.-based technology, they will be trying to do it because it’s in their country’s self-interest.”

It’s a new Cold War, she said, with Russia, China and Iran as the principal antagonists. Like the virus itself, the threat is extremely insidious and largely invisible, making it difficult to mobilize Americans against it.

“We can’t really see it, so it’s hard to imagine the effect it can have on us,” Jamieson said.

“That’s part of the problem of explaining why it is that the Russian intervention in 2016 probably did shape enough votes to change the outcome. They didn’t push the levers … They changed minds.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 2, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica faces funding crunch as COVID-19 curbs tourism

MONTREAL — One of Canada’s best-known religious landmarks, the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, is seeking urgent government assistance to withstand a budget shortfall caused by COVID-19.

Claudia Morissette, director of the historic church in Old Montreal, said Notre-Dame expects to be short about $12 million in revenues this year as cultural events and guided visits remain suspended due to the pandemic.

“It’s huge. It represents 85 per cent of our total revenue,” Morissette said in an interview.

She said that money is “absolutely necessary” to preserve and restore the stone church, which was constructed in the 1820s in the Gothic Revival style and remains one of the main tourist destinations in the city, welcoming around one million visitors per year before the pandemic.

A first phase of restoration work is already underway on its facade, but Morissette said the church is concerned it will not be able to finance the second and third phases of restoration on the building’s east and west towers.

These first three phases are expected to cost $9.2 million out of a total of nearly $30 million of work needed to preserve and restore the building over the next decade, the church estimates.

“We can’t press pause (on phases two and three) because that would risk putting the integrity of the towers in peril and (could) even become dangerous,” said Morissette, adding that delays on the work could also lead to an increase in overall costs.

Notre-Dame is not the only church in Quebec facing economic challenges due to COVID-19, which has hit the province hard.

Across the province, where the Catholic Church historically played a central role but has seen a decline in recent decades, many churches have struggled to pay rent and maintain their aging buildings as the pandemic forced them this spring to suspend in-person services.

Quebec’s Culture Department announced last month that it would invest $15 million to preserve religious heritage, targeting 62 buildings and three organs. Culture Minister Nathalie Roy said the investment also would help stimulate the economy and create jobs for artisans and labourers.

Morissette said Notre-Dame received $1 million last year from Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council, a non-profit organization that supports the conservation of historic buildings, to help finance part of phase one of its restoration. But the church did not get any of the new funding.

“We understand that (the money) goes quickly, and we also understand that we’re not the only ones. We know that COVID-19 affected many people,” Morissette said. “But we’re a major attraction. We are one of the major patrimonial jewels.”

The Quebec Culture Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Canadian Press.

Andreanne Jalbert-Laramee, cultural heritage adviser at Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council, said that if Notre-Dame is struggling, smaller and less renowned churches are no doubt struggling, too.

“The worry is that if their financial situation is difficult, they will delay these restoration projects, this work, and that will make the situation even more difficult for those buildings,” Jalbert-Laramee said in an interview.

She said that while about $40 million is needed to restore and preserve religious heritage buildings across Quebec, the government’s $15-million investment is a good step.

“These are interventions that are essential for the survival of these buildings,” Jalbert-Laramee said. “We see that the need is great, the need is there.”

For her part, Morissette said she remains concerned the Notre-Dame Basilica will not be able to finance its restoration.

While daily masses resumed last month, guided tours and shows that draw tourists to the church have not — meaning that Notre-Dame missed out on the summer tourist season, which typically draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

The church said it sold nearly 833,500 tickets for guided tours and over 227,000 tickets to its light show called Aura in 2018.

Morissette called for any of the three levels of government — federal, provincial and municipal — to provide urgent financial aid to help Notre-Dame withstand its losses.

“Because it’s the symbol of the founding of the City of Montreal, that it’s one of the most well-known religious monuments in North America, that it’s the main tourist attraction in Old Montreal … we need to preserve this gem so that the next generations can enjoy it,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, The Canadian Press

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Atlantic Canadians against lifting travel restrictions next month, survey finds

A new survey indicates Atlantic Canadians are largely opposed to lifting quarantine requirements for Canadians who live outside the region.

More than 3,300 Atlantic Canadians participated in the Halifax-based Narrative Research survey that asked questions about existing travel restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

More than three-quarters of respondents were opposed to lifting 14-day quarantine requirements for visitors from the rest of Canada within the next month.

Seventy-nine per cent of respondents said they had not left their home provinces since Atlantic Canada created the so-called travel “bubble” in July, which waived the 14-day self-isolation rules for residents of the region who cross provincial borders.

Prince Edward Islanders were most likely to have travelled within the Atlantic region, at 38 per cent, while Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were the least likely, at seven per cent.

People who had travelled within the Atlantic bubble were more likely under the age of 55 and higher income earners.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

 

The Canadian Press

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Asylum seekers on front lines of COVID-19 to have chance at permanent residency

OTTAWA — Asylum seekers working on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis are getting an early chance at permanent residency in Canada.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced the program today in response to public demand that the so-called “Guardian Angels” — many in Quebec — be recognized for their work in the health-care sector during the pandemic.

Ordinarily, asylum seekers must wait for their claims to be accepted before they can become permanent residents, but the new program waives that requirement.

To apply for residency now, they must have claimed asylum in Canada prior to March 13 and have spent no less than 120 hours working as a orderly, nurse or other designated occupations between the date of their claim and today.

They must also demonstrate they have six months of experience in the profession before they can receive permanent residency and have until the end of this month to meet that requirement.

The approach recognizes the extraordinary contribution of asylum claimants, particularly in long-term care centres, Mendicino said in a statement.

“As these individuals face an uncertain future in Canada, the current circumstances merit exceptional measures in recognition of their service during the pandemic,” he said.

The new program was the result of negotiations between the federal government and Quebec.

That province has housed many of the nearly 60,000 people who have requested asylum in Canada after crossing on foot into the country from the U.S., the majority using an entry point in Quebec called Roxham Road.

About half the claims have already been heard, and the rest are still working their way through the system.

The irregular border crossers, as they are known, did so to get around a loophole in an agreement between Canada and the U.S. that forbids most people from entering the country by land and asking for safe haven.

The Safe Third Country Agreement, however, was struck down by the Federal Court in July, when a judge ruled elements of it violate constitutional rights.

The judgment was suspended for six months to give the government time to find a solution.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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