Election Meddling: It won’t happen here… will it?
By Andrea Chrysanthou
For the past two years plus, election meddling in the most recent US presidential election has dominated public discourse around the world. But here in Canada, we have watched events unfold with a small sigh of relief and confidence that our country is just too small a player for hackers to bother with.
Our elections, surely, are too insignificant. There would be nothing to gain by outside forces in helping elect one party over the other or by causing political and social chaos.
And yet the US election was not an isolated incident. It was not even the first. In fact, the US itself has been accused of playing a hand in numerous elections around the world in recent history. This summer, Senator Rand Paul famously told CNN: “we also do the same … we all do it. What we need to do is make sure our electoral process is protected.”
The strategy of using social media, ‘fake news’, and digital marketing strategies to influence voters has never been seen to the extent it is now. Since the 2016 US presidential election, of course, we have seen a similar approach play out in Brazil, where president-elect Jair Messias Bolsonaro ran (and largely won) on a campaign of social media manipulation. According to a recent report by Freedom House (a US-based NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights) online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in at least 18 countries in 2017 alone.
The Threat Comes Home
Is Canada really immune? No. There are already indications that foreign governments are mounting anti-Canadian campaigns abroad. Rose Gottemoeller, deputy-secretary general of NATO, recently noted that Russians are responsible for a steady stream of misinformation about the Canadian-led NATO Battle Group in Latvia, including fake accounts of misbehaviour by Canadian troops and exaggerated reports of budget costs.
Domestically, the evidence for intervention is less clear, but Prime Minister Trudeau particularly and the Canadian government more generally, have no shortage of enemies. For example, during the recent G20 meeting in Argentina, Trudeau sparked the ire of both Russia and Saudi Arabia. It was widely reported that Canada initiated a statement by the G7 foreign ministers condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine. He also “made it clear” to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman that “Canada was concerned” about the recent killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and later said Canada will “always stand up strongly and clearly for human rights.”
Even before these events, the Canadian government was already on high alert.
In late October, Parliament passed Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act. Among its provisions, the bill bans third parties from using foreign funds for political campaigns. It also requires online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, to create a registry of all digital advertisements placed by political parties or third parties during the pre-writ and writ periods and to ensure they remain visible to the public for two years.
But there have been no assurances from Facebook that they will follow through with the requirements. Indeed, while Facebook has announced a number of initiatives leading up to next year’s Canadian federal election, none include a registry. Instead, they focus on programs to promote digital and news literacy; the launch of a Cyber Threats Crisis Email Line in the event people suspect interference or hacking; a fact-checking service that will review news stories and rate their accuracy; and equipping pages with an “Info and Ads” button you can click to see paid advertisements.
Many worry Facebook’s policies are only lip service. Indeed, when the UK and Canada issued a joint request for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to appear before an International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News, Zuckerberg declined and sent his European policy chief instead. Commenting on the events, MP Bob Zimmer, one of three Canadian parliamentarians participating in the committee, said “Our democratic institutions have been upended by fratboy billionaires from California, and Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision not to appear speaks volumes”.
Moreover, on separate occasions both the Canadian federal government and the social media giant have admitted they are helpless in fully preventing foreign interference. Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould admitted in late November that “it would be virtually impossible to prevent foreign interference.” Gould noted that the government has asked the Communications Security Establishment to monitor potential online disinformation campaigns, and that it is still possible for foreign parties to use social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and more to spread misinformation.
Meanwhile, Richard Allan, vice president of policy solutions at Facebook, said recently: “You will have an election in Canada next year. There will be problems, there will be people who cheat and work around the system. But we will catch most of them, and our goal is that the Canadian election should not be seen to have been unduly influenced by online activity through our platform,” He added “We can’t guarantee that there will not be instances where there are people who cheat that we catch and have to take down during the campaign.”
There’s still hope
Still, a glimmer of hope may come from Canadians themselves. An October 30 report by the Media Technology Monitor showed that while more than 70% of Canadians consider Twitter and Facebook news sources, only 15% trust the information they read on Facebook and only 11% trust the what they read on Twitter. Additionally, a “Trust in News” study by Vividata/Kantar TNS released in July 2018, showed that Canadians’ trust in print or digital newspapers is double that of digital-only news outlets.
With the federal election less than one year away, the bad news is most experts agree there will be some form of third-party meddling, whether foreign or domestic. But the good news is this: Canadians are seemingly less inclined to believe everything they read. Will this critical thinking be enough to mitigate the effects of election outcomes? Very few are willing to make that prediction.
Andrea Chrysanthou is Director of Strategic Communications at Global Public Affairs, where she leads national communications and public relations support for clients. She has more than a decade of experience working at some of Canada’s top national broadcasters as well as international news organizations. Andrea began her career in broadcast and print news and moved into working in television production, going on to serve as a lifestyles and news producer for some of Canada’s top-tier networks.
This article also appears on the Global Public Affairs, our partner agency in Canada.