The Canadian Forces spent more than $1 million on behaviour modification training used by the parent firm of Cambridge Analytica, the company that was the centre of a scandal in which personal data of Facebook users was provided to U.S. President Donald Trump’s political campaign.
The two contracts to train military and civilian public affairs staff at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa were revealed Monday in a report by Emma Briant, a professor at Bard College in the U.S. and a specialist in researching military propaganda.
Briant noted the training the Canadian military staff received is a direct descendent of SCL Group’s “behavioural dynamics methodology” which promises to help military clients analyze and profile groups to find the best strategy to effectively influence a target audience’s behaviour.
SCL, a strategic communications firm, has been linked to propaganda campaigns used by various militaries, having drawn on psychological and social science research to distill techniques aimed at manipulating group behaviour. It’s subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica, was at the centre of a scandal where personal data of more than 30 million Facebook users was obtained and later provided to Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for their political campaigns.
SCL had also boasted its capabilities were used to influence elections in a number of countries. Briant pointed out the company had been accused of using behavioural dynamics methodology to unethically manipulate election campaigns in various nations, including Saint Kitts in the Caribbean. SCL Group announced it was shutting down in 2018 in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but elements of the organization appear to be still operating.
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defence said the intent of the training contracts was to have military public affairs staff “better identify and understand key audiences” so they could create communications campaigns that “are more customized and beneficial.” Staff were also taught strategic campaign planning and “audience research,” he added.
The Canadian contracts were awarded to Emic Consulting, a British firm.
Emic’s director, Gaby van den Berg, had previously worked with SCL. She stressed in an email to this newspaper that her company uses science-based techniques to help NATO militaries and promotes ethical behaviour in its courses. Emic has no relationship with SCL and she has no professional interest or experience in election campaigning, Van den Berg added.
“As a company we do not teach anything related to complex data analytics or ‘big data’; anything to do with the use of social media tools to ‘target’ communications campaigns (micro-targetting); nor anything that endorses or supports the use of deceptive or untrue communications,” Van den Berg stated.
One contract was awarded last year to Emic and another last month for a total cost of more than $1 million, DND confirmed. Twenty staff members were trained during the first course, according to DND spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier. The second also involves 20 individuals being trained and is currently underway.
Le Bouthillier said the courses help public affairs officers plan strategic communications campaigns.
In June, NRC Handelsblad, the top newspaper in the Netherlands, revealed Dutch military personnel were also receiving similar training on how to influence populations. That prompted concerns about the ethics of using such training among some in the Dutch military as well as legal specialists in that country.
Canada’s DND knew that training provided was similar to courses that had been offered to SCL clients. Emic also highlighted the course it provided to the Dutch military in 2019 as part of its pitch to DND.
The training is part of a wider project originally labelled as the “weaponization of public affairs” by Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance. That got underway in 2015. The Canadian Forces is also developing its skills in “influence operations,” propaganda and data mining for campaigns that can be directed at either overseas populations or at Canadians.
The Canadian Forces has already tested some of those skills this year. In July, this newspaper reported a team assigned to a Canadian military intelligence unit monitored and collected information from people’s social media accounts in Ontario, claiming such data-mining was needed to help troops working in long-term care homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
In some cases, the data collected involved basic information about the long-term care facilities. In other cases, the collection involved comments made by the public about the provincial government’s failure in taking care of the elderly in the province. That data was turned over to the Ontario government, with a warning from the team that it represented a “negative” reaction from the public.
Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and Twitter accounts were scanned by the five-person group called the Precision Information Team or PiT.
Various military sources contacted this newspaper at the time to raise concerns about the Precision Information Team, warning that its operations could be seen as unethical and bordering on illegality.
In addition, this newspaper reported at the same time that the Canadian Forces planned a propaganda campaign aimed at heading off civil disobedience by Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic. The plan used similar propaganda tactics to those employed against the Afghan population during the war in Afghanistan. Planning began for the propaganda operation but it was never put into action.
Briant, a specialist in propaganda and how it affects democracy, noted that in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal a number of new firms, using various techniques to manipulate the public, have emerged. “Governments are failing us,” wrote Briant in her opinion piece Monday for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a non-governmental group.
“Such firms continue to provide training, or engage directly, in tactics to influence the behavior of citizens,” added Briant, who is working on a book about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Van den Berg noted that the behaviour dynamics methodology is not owned by SCL Group. SCL Defence, a subsidiary of SCL Group, paid a licence for, and delivered training in the methodology, she added.
Brig. Gen. Jay Janzen, director general of military strategic communications, authorized the contracts to Emic, said Le Bouthillier. Janzen’s efforts have full support of the defence leadership, including Vance, deputy minister Jody Thomas and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Van den Berg said a military officer conducted ethics training during the Canadian course and her firm also has an ethics component to its training. “Ultimately — as with all knowledge, skills or equipment — the ethics of how something is employed lies in the hands of the user, or in this case the DND,” she added.
Van den Berg pointed out the Dutch military operating in Mali used research with the behavioural dynamics methodology to hone its communications with the local population. As a result, Malians starting reporting more to the military on the locations of improvised explosives.
Briant, however, noted the British Defense Science and Technology Laboratory analyzed behavioural methodology and was unable to determine whether it was effective.
Le Bouthillier says now that the Canadian military has had the initial training and courseware from Emic, it will start in on conducting its own training of additional staff. No details were provided on how many public affairs staff per year would be trained in influence operations techniques.
Van den Berg maintains that “ethical concerns about BDM are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the BDM is, and what it is not.”
But Briant is calling for more oversight. “Without proper regulation and oversight of companies that draw on personal data to modify behaviour, it is just a matter of time before the next Cambridge-Analytica-type scandal unfolds,” Briant noted in her opinion paper.