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Twitter trolls stoked debates about immigrants and pipelines in Canada, data show

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Twitter trolls linked to suspected foreign influence campaigns stoked controversy over pipelines and immigration in Canada, according to a CBC/Radio-Canada analysis of 9.6 million tweets from accounts since deleted.

Roughly 21,600 tweets from those troll accounts directly targeted Canadians — many of them with messages critical of Canadian pipeline projects and tweets that highlighted divisions over Canada’s policies on immigration and refugees.

The troll accounts, which have since been deleted by Twitter, are suspected of having originated in Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

Since 2013, 245 of these accounts retweeted messages from Canadian activists, politicians and media reports about various pipeline issues, from potential environmental impacts to grassroots movements against the projects.

Most of those pipeline tweets were sent on Jan. 24, 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to greenlight the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines. Tweets mentioning those pipelines were retweeted some 9,420 times across Canada and the United States.

Although these inauthentic accounts and their tweets are no longer on Twitter, the social media company published them on Feb. 3 as part of its campaign to be more transparent and to combat foreign interference in elections worldwide.

Last year, CBC reported that Russian trolls appeared to be trying to sow division among Canadians by tweeting provocative statements on hot-button issues like refugees and immigration. This new trove of tweets shows a continued campaign originating in different countries.

The 30 most frequent words in 21,600 troll tweets directed at Canadians. The larger the size of the word in the image above, the more often it was used. (Made with WordArt.com)

Iranian tweets well-versed in pipeline debate

The trolls appeared well-versed in Canadian debates about pipelines, quoting and retweeting prominent figures. The account of Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema, for instance, was the eighth-most retweeted by trolls. Hudema has been highly critical of Canadian pipeline projects and oilsands developments. The trolls retweeted him 53 times.

CBC News was the account that saw the most troll retweets.

The most retweeted accounts by trolls in Canada

Account

Number of retweets

@CBCNews

196

@TheRebelTV

191

@ezralevant

148

@RT_com

120

@PressTV

57

@globeandmail

54

@realDonaldTrump

53

@MikeHudema

53

Twitter suspended 2,617 accounts that it believes originated in Iran, but it did not link them definitively to the Iranian government. Twitter says it deleted the accounts for participating in “an attempted influence campaign we identified as potentially located within Iran.”

According to scholar and Middle East expert Sami Aoun, Iran has a strategic interest in seeing Canadian and American pipeline projects fail. The regime also has a history of using the internet to spread propaganda, he added.

“The Iranians are trying to short-circuit American sanctions by selling their oil in Asia. To keep a certain advantage in China and India, they might be trying to prevent Canada from developing pipelines that could give the country better access to those markets,” said Aoun, director of the Middle East and North Africa Observatory at Université du Québec à Montréal.

Some of these inauthentic accounts may have had few followers, but their behaviour might indicate that they were trying to shape activist narratives on Twitter, said Kate Starbird, assistant professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington.

Starbird studied online discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016, when it became apparent that Russian troll accounts had managed to infiltrate both sides of the debate and play them against each other.

“Their goal is to integrate into a politically active community, amplify and reflect that behavior back at them and slowly try to shape that behaviour towards things that they’re interested in,” she said. “Not all accounts are going to be successful, but every once in a while, they are.”

Even if the accounts deleted by Twitter generated few retweets in return, they still could have posed an eventual threat, Starbird said. Although researchers had come across some evidence of online meddling years ago, they didn’t realize their importance until the 2016 U.S. election.

“They were probably always important. We just weren’t noticing what’s going on”, she said.

Canadian government tight-lipped on foreign influence campaigns

Alarms were raised last year over troll campaigns to influence Canadians and Americans on pipeline issues. More than 9,000 posts on various social media platforms linked to Russian political meddling were identified by a U.S. House of Representatives review.

This trove of deleted tweets came to light barely a week after the Liberal government put in place a series of measures to counteract foreign influence campaigns targeting Canadian elections.

In anticipation of the October federal election, Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould announced on Jan. 30 the creation of the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force, made up of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and Global Affairs Canada (GAC). The group will be tasked with monitoring foreign influence threats online.

“While social media and digital platforms create forums that allow Canadians to engage in a dialogue about important issues, they also have a record of being manipulated to spread disinformation, create confusion and exploit existing societal tensions,” said Amy Butcher, a spokesperson for Gould. “We expect [social media] companies to take concrete actions to combat manipulation.”

Last year, the CSE produced an overview of potential cyber threats to the Canadian democratic process. It included bot networks and social media influence campaigns by foreign powers in its list of threats.

Reached for comment about this latest trove of tweets, a CSE spokesperson said it “cannot comment on specific threat actors, their activities or any of CSE’s operational work.”

Starbird puts the threat of online political meddling bluntly: “I assume that if you’re a person on this planet and you spend time online, you’re going to come across influence operations that are happening right now,” she said.

Russian trolls boosted immigration fears

Alongside the possible Iranian influence campaign, a slew of inauthentic Russian accounts also tried to target Canadians with messages stoking immigration fears and conspiracy theories.

Many of these tweets reacted to major news events, such as the Quebec City mosque shooting and the travel ban on Muslim countries enacted by Donald Trump.

The chart below shows the daily volume of troll tweets by topic. The peaks coincide with major events.

(CBC News Graphics)

In most cases, the same tweet — often copied from a non-troll account — was amplified across the troll network. These tweets, for example, were sent out repeatedly on the dates indicated:

Sept 9, 2015: Now Is the Time for Blame: #Alyan & the Myth of a ‘Generous’ #Canada! #RefugeesCrisis #Refugees

Jan. 28, 2017: Canada Wants to Take Unvetted Muslim “Refugees” Detained at U.S. Airports

July 15, 2017: Globalist Trudeau Demands Americans Dump Borders and “America First” Slogan

Suspected automated Russian accounts also retweeted messages from at least 24 different seemingly Canadian accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. This baseless conspiracy theory claims that a high-ranking member of President Trump’s administration — known only as ‘Q’ — is secretly leaking information on the anonymous 8chan message board.

‘Q’ insisted in October 2017 that former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had been extradited and would soon face a military tribunal. ‘Q’ also claims that Trump is on the cusp of triggering ‘The Storm’ — a far-reaching takeover of the U.S. government to expel “deep state” enemies of the administration. After some 2,600 ‘Q’ posts, none of its predictions have materialized.

Some examples of tweets promoting the conspiracy:

Jan 16, 2018: RT @safety_canada7: #QAnon #TheStorm #FollowTheWhiteRabbit

April 24th, 2018: RT @Awakentothyself: #QAnon #FakeNews #SaveOntario #TreasonousTrudeau Look how corrupt our government is.

May 27th, 2018: RT @breezing_in: #MakeItRain #QAnon #HumanTrafficking #TrudeauMustGo #TrudeauForTreason #SaveCanada #Cdnpoli

Methodology

CBC downloaded and analyzed 9.6 million tweets released by Twitter on this page.

To isolate tweets targeting Canadians, the CBC searched the tweets for 67 keywords, including the names of public figures (Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Ezra Levant), places (Toronto, Alberta) and organizations (Kinder Morgan, CBC, NDP), as well as popular hashtags like #cdnpoli, #onpoli, and #polqc.

These do not necessarily include all the tweets about Canada, while some U.S.-specific tweets may have been included in the search.

The code used to analyze the tweets can be found on GitHub.

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Grocery wars intensify anew as Whole Foods to cut prices on hundreds of items by 20% starting tomorrow

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Whole Foods, the high-end grocery store bought by Amazon in 2017, plans to cut prices on hundreds of items by as much as 20 per cent as of Wednesday, including at locations in Canada.

Amazon says most of the cuts will come in produce and other fresh items and will amount, on average, to about 20 per cent in savings where they are in effect.

It’s the third such round of widespread cost cutting since Amazon bought the chain in the fall of 2017.

The takeover at the time came as a bit of a surprise, since it was the marriage of two companies with vastly different strategies and markets.

Amazon started as an online bookstore and soon grew to become the largest online retailer of just about everything else by focusing on cutting costs while expanding selection and offering delivery speeds that other sellers struggled to match.

Its Amazon Prime service, where customers can get same-day delivery on millions of products for an annual fee in Canada of $79, has helped them cement customer loyalty even more.

Whole Foods, meanwhile, began as a health food store in Austin, Texas, in 1980 that steadily grew across the U.S. and then into Canada by catering to health-conscious shoppers who didn’t mind paying more for items they deemed to be healthier.

When Amazon bought the chain, many wondered what the long-term plan was, and Wednesday’s move seems to suggest the company may bring its ruthless approach to cost cutting to the bricks-and-mortar world of retail. And the company claims it can do that without sacrificing the quality that won the grocer fans in the first place.

“Whole Foods Market continues to maintain the high-quality standards that we’ve championed for nearly 40 years, and with Amazon, we will lower more prices in the future, building on the positive momentum from previous price investments,” Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey said. “We will continue to focus on both lowering prices and bringing customers the quality they trust and the innovative assortment they expect from our brand.”

‘Seismic impact’

Whole Foods has about 300 U.S. locations and 14 in Canada — mainly in and around Toronto and Vancouver, but also one location in Victoria and one in Ottawa.

Strategy adviser Mark Satov, with Satov Consultants, says it’s less likely the decision will kick off a move to turn Whole Foods into a discount grocery chain, and more likely Amazon is simply using the chain to figure out how a new business works. “They bought it to learn how to be in the food business,” he said.

“I think they’re just experimenting and marketing to draw a few more people into the store,” he added. The store’s price point is still out of reach for most Canadians, but by targeting items that people tend to benchmark prices on — things like fresh vegetables — the chain is hoping to win a few more customers for its more expensive items, too.

“Once you are inside the store, a couple of things happen,” Satov said. “You go and say the milk is $3.69 … I can afford that, and then you’ll buy the freshly ground peanut butter for $18 a tub.”

Whole Foods currently has more than a dozen locations across Canada. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

But Bruce Winder, co-founder and partner at Retail Advisors Network, says the move is a much bigger deal for the hyper-competitive world of Canadian grocery.

“It’s going to cause a fairly seismic impact,” he said in an interview. While he acknowledges the Whole Foods footprint is relatively small in Canada, “it fires a shot over the bow of traditional grocery,” he said.

The move likely won’t cause a flood of people to change their grocery store, he said, but “it’s going to wake up some people to consider a switch.”

If it gets enough of them through the door — and possibly buying new Prime memberships — Winder says it’s worth it.

That’s because most people shop one or two times a week, “and if they can get that customer coming in, invite them into the ecosystem, get them to use Prime — and suddenly you’ve got a strong rewards system there that keeps the customer within the Amazon world,” he said.

And ultimately, anything that causes the rest of the industry to take a look at its own businesses is a good thing for everyone.

“The consumer wins,” Winder said.

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What I Learned at the Opening of Toronto’s First Legal Weed Store

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Perhaps it was fitting that Ontario’s weed stores finally opened their doors on April Fool’s day—because the province’s retail rollout has arguably been a joke.

In the end, only ten of the 25 private cannabis retail operators selected via lottery were able to open Monday. There was one store open in Toronto, a city of 2.6 million, where more than 100 illicit dispensaries were in operation prior to legalization.

VICE visited the Toronto store, called The Hunny Pot, located downtown near Queen Street and University Ave. Here are a few key takeaways from the experience:

People give a shit

When we showed up at 8:45 AM—about 15 minutes before The Hunny Pot opened, there were dozens of people already in line. This despite temperatures being below 0 degrees Celsius [32 degrees Fahrenheit] and the fact that you can order weed online. Cannabis lawyer Caryma Sa’d and a few others parked a tent in front of The Hunny Pot at 10 AM Sunday to ensure they’d be first in line. Sa’d told VICE she can’t order weed through the Ontario Cannabis Store website because it doesn’t accept Visa debit cards, so she wasn’t able to buy weed on October 17. “Obviously Ontario has been extremely slow to open brick and mortar stores and it was something of a second chance to be first.” The line only got busier as the day progressed, and the three levels of the store’s interior were jammed the entire time we were there.

The owner doesn’t smoke weed

The Hunny Pot owner Hunny Gawri is a real estate agent who told VICE he has consumed cannabis only on rare occasions. He has, however, run a bunch of different types of shops, including cell phone stores and an indoor kids’ playground.

“I think I might be able to speak more for people who haven’t tried it and are curious now that it’s legal,” he said, noting he wants more education on the effects various strains will have on him. “There’s a lot of enthusiasts out there and I’m looking forward to understanding it more, learning more about it as we go through the process.” Advertisement

Gawri said his retail experience is what allowed him to build the store in a short period of time. He said he was in part attracted to selling weed because it’s “definitely going to be a lucrative industry,” especially given Ontario’s population. Many of the other weed operator lottery winners in Ontario have partnered with larger retailers in licensing deals, but The Hunny Pot is independent.

People are pissed about this tone-deaf shirt

Staff at The Hunny Pot were outfitted with uniforms that had jokey slogans on the back, including “baked fresh daily,” and “I’m high on life.” However one of the staffers—a white woman—wore a shirt that said “I run on weed & gangsta rap.” People were not amused when I tweeted a photo of it. That’s because it seemed a little tone deaf, considering that black people are disproportionately arrested for weed crimes, and vastly underrepresented in the legal weed industry.

“There are about 500,000 Canadians w/ marijuana convictions on their record. Black folks were targeted for these offenses & are wildly over-represented in that number. But YUK YUK isn’t this tee so cute? Everybody wanna be Black but nobody wanna be Black,” tweeted Jared A. Walker, a Toronto-based writer and communications consultant. Yeah, might be a good idea to pull that shirt out of the rotation.

golden-joint

A golden joint (left) and a “CBD dominant” strain (right). Photos by the author

The weed isn’t cheap

I paid $51 [$38 USD] for 3.5 grams of San Rafael Pink Kush—an indica containing 21 percent THC. Online, that quantity is priced at $42.85 [$32.08 USD] plus a $5 [$3.75 USD] shipping fee, though it’s sold out currently. Owner Gawri told VICE grams at his store range from $9.50 [$7.11 USD] to $22 [$16.47 USD]. It goes without saying that black market weed is still cheaper, especially if you buy weed in larger quantities. But being the only legal weed store in Toronto, The Hunny Pot is still going to get a lot of traffic.

There’s an Apple Store vibe

The Hunny Pot is aesthetically very sleek. It’s 3,500 square feet with a lobby area, and three levels where cannabis is displayed in sensory jars that allow you to smell the various strains and examine them through a magnifying glass. Each customer is greeted by a budtender who walks them through their options and then places orders through an iPad. Once you’re done placing your order you wait in a line to pay and pick up the weed at the cashier.

There was a Christian man protesting weed

After spending a few hours at the store, we walked outside to find a protester across the street holding up a sign that said “there’s no hope in the dope. John 8:36.”

It turns out that’s not actually what that bible verse says. The guy was shouting “it’s corrupt, it’s dirty, it’s vile, it’s not God’s will” into a microphone. And I took that as my cue to go home.

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Two Ontario pot shops appear to be violating building code and accessibility laws

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Toronto’s only licensed, up-and-running, brick-and-mortar cannabis store was open for business on April 1. But some customers with disabilities encountered difficulties when attempting to access the Hunny Pot Cannabis Co. near Queen Street West and University Avenue—there was no ramp to facilitate access for users of mobility devices such as wheelchairs and walkers.

Global News reports that Jordan Dragiz went to the Hunny Pot on Monday to pick up a few cannabis products. After a long wait in line, Dragiz arrived at the front–only to realize that there was no ramp to the front door. In order to be served, Dragiz was forced to leave his wheelchair sitting on the sidewalk and had to be brought in and out of the shop without the device, via staff assistance.

“I wasn’t shocked. I was kind of expecting this. But I wasn’t sure if there’s going to be a ramp or not. I’m more shocked they don’t have a ramp,” Dragiz told Global News. “All these buildings are pretty old … I was wondering what I was going to do, how I was going to get in. But good thing they were nice enough to help me in.”

Staff at the Hunny Pot Cannabis Co. went on the defensive when asked by Global News to explain the lack of accessibility.

“We fully accommodated those individuals. Today, up to four individuals came through with accessibility needs including wheelchair and each were able to purchase product,” Kate Johnny informed Global News in a statement on Monday night. Johnny added that the shop’s owner is working with consultants to identify and correct accessibility issues.

“We do have a temporary ramp that we can bring in to let them come into the store and the ability for our budtenders to bring the point-of-sale and products directly to the individual who currently cannot access the third and fourth floor retail spaces,” says Johnny.

Global reports that upon attending the store on Monday to view the temporary ramp, a rep informed them that the store could not display the ramp due to the influx of clients.

The Hunny Pot Cannabis Co. appears to be in violation of the Ontario Building Code and accessibility laws.

1a Fire Flower 0378 e1554218398428 Two Ontario pot shops appear to be violating building code and accessibility laws
Ottawa’s Fire & Flower is also currently inaccessible to potential clients with mobility issues. Wayne Cuddington/ Postmedia

“I can tell you that all businesses need to adhere to the Ontario Building Code, which says that any new or considerably renovated building needs to be accessible for people with disabilities,” Minister for Seniors and Accessibility Raymond Cho said in a statement.

“I am reviewing the matter immediately and will be working very closely with my colleague, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, as well as my other colleagues who are engaged on this issue on ensuring that we take a full government approach to accessibility.”

Hunny Pot is not the only Ontario dispensary catching criticism for a lack of accessibility. Ottawa’s Fire & Flower is also currently inaccessible to potential clients with mobility issues, although Ottawans have other options at their disposal that are accessible such as Hobo and Superette.

Global reports Fire & Flower spokesperson Nathan Mison says that a “wheelchair ramp, a chair lift, a wider front doorway and wider hallways” were originally planned as part of the store. Because the shop is located in a heritage building, he says, any major renovations would require municipal approval.

As a result, plans to make the store accessible to all clients had to be delayed in order to open by April 1. Because of that, and the tight timeline the company faced before opening day, plans to make the building fully accessible had to be delayed, says Mison, who claims Fire & Flower is working with the city of Ottawa and hopes to have changes implemented over the next few months.

“It’s still in process and we’re still working that through,” he said.

It is unclear whether Hunny Pot or Fire & Flower will face repercussions for flouting provincial disability laws.

Want to keep up to date on what’s happening in the world of cannabis?  Subscribe to the Cannabis Post newsletter for weekly insights into the industry, what insiders will be talking about and content from across the Postmedia Network.

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