There’s another anniversary coming up in 2017
One rewarding thing I do as a Bencher is the “Bencher Interview” with articled students. I meet between 30 and 35 students a year, and discuss how their articles are going, how the Law Society works, our ethical obligations as lawyers, a few relevant discipline cases and a host of other issues. At the outset, I try to break the ice and tell them what I’d been told about why we do Bencher interviews in the first place. I tell them that in the ancient past, they were to ascertain whether the Articled Student “was now or had ever been a member of the Communist Party.” When I explain this, they seem bemused, as if I’d shared the fact that Hitler, Stalin, Freud and Trotsky lived a few miles from each other in Vienna in 1913, or that William Shatner once acted in a movie entirely in Esperanto.
As I write this, Canada is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation. But there’s another interesting anniversary happening in 2017. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union. How are the Russians going to deal with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union when its destruction made Russia’s oligarchic leadership filthy rich? Well, expect lots of nostalgic Soviet propaganda.
My first exposure to Soviet propaganda was at Expo 67 in Montréal where, as an 11-year-old boy, I found the Soviet Pavilion to be far more interesting than any of the other pavilions. When I wanted to put my name on a mailing list for more information about the USSR, my father said no because he expected that our telephones would be bugged, our passports would be red-flagged (pun intended) and that I might be approached as a potential double agent to advise my Soviet handlers about the strategic military importance to the global socialist revolution of Oak Bay, BC, (and, of course, to spy on Moose and Squirrel).
On a day-trip to East Berlin in 1968, I was fascinated by our tour guide raving about his socialist workers’ paradise, even though I knew that it was unbelievable propaganda. Likewise, it was hilarious to listen to Radio Moscow’s English broadcasts on our Grundig Shortwave radio in the late 60s and early 70s, knowing full well it was all Soviet propaganda. (I suppose it’s a little like watching Fox news in 2017).
The problem with today’s world is that modern Russia may be even more dangerous than Soviet Russia because its use of propaganda has become far more sophisticated. When I was growing up, everyone knew it was propaganda. Now you don’t.
You see, Russia maintains an army of paid Internet Trolls called “Web Brigades” to manipulate online discussion and public opinion. Using sockpuppets to mask identities, members of these “Web Brigades” have multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts with thousands of followers. They weaponize information, spread disinformation, create conspiracy theories, spread unfounded rumors, circulate fake photographs, simultaneously back far left and far right politics; all in an attempt to sow division in our free and open society and create a hostile online atmosphere that discourages online dialogue from reasonable people. It creates a lack of faith in traditional media and political institutions, and may well have contributed, directly or indirectly, to the election of Donald Trump. Everyone should keep this in mind when the investigation into Russian interference in the last US election gains momentum.
If you have been trolled on social media for your opinion, or you are shocked at the aggressiveness of online commentary, the troll may well have been operating from Moscow or St. Petersburg with thousands of other Russian trolls. And if you don’t believe me, read “The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information.”
It’s a new form of propaganda of the shoddiest kind.
Tony Wilson, QC is a franchise lawyer at Boughton in Vancouver and a Bencher of the Law Society. The views expressed herein are strictly those of Tony and do not reflect the opinions of the Law Society, CBABC, or their respective members.