Any strategies social media and tech giants have used to mitigate election interference abroad, the Canadian government expects them to use here.
In an interview with The West Block, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and others have proven how easily they can be used to spread misinformation during election campaigns.
Because of that, they need to apply in Canada the same ad transparency centres and rules requiring entities placing political ads to prove they are either Canadian citizens or Canada-based: both strategies that were used in the U.S. midterm elections and upcoming European parliamentary elections.
“Canadians are rightly skeptical of the social media platforms. We’ve seen over the last few years how their platforms have been manipulated by bad actors,” she said, noting the government wants them to “take actions that they’ve done in other jurisdictions” and “apply that here.”
Gould last week unveiled a federal task force of top civil servants who will be tasked with determining when egregious attempts to spread misinformation and interfere in Canadian democracy should be revealed to the public during the upcoming federal campaign.
The clerk of the Privy Council, the government’s national security adviser, and the deputy ministers of justice, public safety and global affairs will make up that task force, which officials said last week is designed to respond to incidents such as hacking attributed to Russia of the email accounts of then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just hours before polls opened in 2017.
Gould refused to name which countries or actors could pose a threat to the Canadian election.
But she cited multiple cases of interference that have been widely attributed to Russian actors.
“We saw incidents of this in the U.S. presidential election, the French presidential election, the German parliamentary elections, the UK referendum on Brexit,” she said. “We’re taking all of those learnings that we’ve seen from different episodes around the world, applying them here to Canada best practices to ensure that our elections are not only free and fair but also secure.”
Following the hacking of both U.S. presidential campaigns in 2016 and mounting evidence that Russia interfered to tilt the balance of public opinion in favour of U.S. President Donald Trump, social media and tech companies including Twitter and Facebook launched ad transparency centres ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Those made information about who paid for which ads, how much they paid, and who they wanted to target available to social media users.
Google also introduced new requirements for entities placing ads mentioning “a political party, candidate or current officeholder” to disclose to the public who paid for that ad, and also plans to force those placing ads related to the EU 2019 elections to prove that they’re either citizens of the EU or Europe-based entities.
That goes one step farther than what C-76, the Liberals’ Elections Modernization Act, does by making it an offence for companies selling advertising space to “knowingly accept” political ads from foreign entities during the campaign, and would require tech companies to go beyond the letter of the law.
When asked whether social media companies are willing to do the same in Canada, Gould said that is what she is talking to them about now and that officials say she will reveal more details closer to the end of the parliamentary session.
“Those are the conversations that we’re having right now,” she said. “Those are the expectations that we’ve laid out as a government.”
The Canadian federal election is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2019.