A Conservative Party organizer’s network of partisan Facebook pages are highlighting the limitations of Canada’s new election-financing rules.
The six Facebook pages – managed by Larry Brandt, who has been slowly building a roster of partisan pages going back to 2012 – boast thousands of followers and promote outwardly partisan content. But, since Mr. Brandt’s pages don’t pay to run advertising, they are not regulated by the Elections Act, even after legislative changes brought in by the Trudeau government designed to bring “transparency” to third-party political activity.
It’s a sign of the limitations on attempts to regulate third-party activity ahead of Canada’s upcoming federal election.
Five of the pages are branded “Canada Campaign” – one national page, and regional pages for Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan. The majority of the content on the pages is either supportive of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer or acutely critical of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party. The sixth Facebook page, called “Canadian Conservatives,” was created in 2012.
Earlier in May, one page opined: “Global cooling, global warming, climate change. … Call it what you like, it still doesn’t make it real.” This week the Ontario page linked to a poll showing that half of the country admits to having racist thoughts, adding: “Has any of the media dared to ask Muslims if they prefer Sharia law in Canada?”
The pages also shared content from the Gatestone Institute, a United States-based far-right, anti-Islam organization that has been chided for peddling conspiracy theory and innuendo.
The Elections Modernization Act, which was passed last year, was developed after a host of online advertisers and partisan Facebook pages cropped up before the 2015 federal election. These types of social media campaigners are now plentiful on the right and the left, with some organizations registering as third parties with Elections Canada, meaning they will have to report their income and spending. There’s no telling how many pages similar to Canada Campaign could be created before this fall’s election.
It was in that vein that former Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand warned a House of Commons committee that “C-76 does not prevent disinformation, propaganda or artificial promotion of pseudo-info through trolls and bots.” Mr. Mayrand further warned that the bill’s attempt to stop foreign funding in Canadian elections was insufficient.
According to Facebook’s transparency tool – which reports some, but not all, details about how pages are run, by whom, and whether they have spent money to promote their content – none of the pages are paying to run ads. The tool reports that the pages have multiple administrators but it does not give their names, only Mr. Brandt’s.
The transparency tool reports that the Canadian Conservatives page has nine managers, who moderate the page and can post content from the official account. Of those nine, seven are based in Canada, one is in the United States, and one appears to be based in Russia. Facebook refused to identify those foreign individuals. Nothing in C-76 governs those foreign actors' involvement in the page.
Mr. Brandt served as a Manitoba organizer for Mr. Scheer’s successful leadership campaign and sits on the executive board for the electoral district association in Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, represented by Conservative MP James Bezan. Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann told The Globe: “We’re not aware of this page, and it is not associated with the party.”
In a brief e-mail, Mr. Brandt told The Globe: “Any pages I am involved with have no connection with any political party.” Someone using the Canada Campaign account responded to inquiries on Thursday. “We have nothing to add to your story but thank you for your interest in our pages,” responded an administrator who identified herself only as “Cathy.” Questions about the identity of page administrators were answered with, “There are no foreigners running the Canada Campaign pages.”
Questions to the page itself went unanswered. A spokesperson for Facebook refused to identify the page’s administrators.
The Canadian Conservatives page largely reposts content from Mr. Brandt’s other properties, but it also links to an “official" merchandise shop. Fans can buy an assortment of clothes and knick-knacks ranging from a baby’s bodysuit ($23) to a mug ($27) to an adult T-shirt ($46).
Even though Mr. Brandt may be a political organizer for the Conservatives, none of this activity is regulated by the Elections Act.
Last year, Ottawa passed the Elections Modernization Act, which aimed to increase transparency regarding third-party actors and rules for foreign funding of partisan activity.
Yet the new law applies only to the pre-writ period, which begins on June 30. Prior to that, there is no real regulation of third parties or limits on acceptance of foreign funding or aid.
Even during the pre-writ and writ periods, “the requirement is that the individual/group/corporation must register as a third party once they’ve incurred expenses of $500 or more on regulated activities,” said Matthew McKenna, a spokesman for Elections Canada. Those third parties can’t accept foreign funding to run ads or perform voter outreach, but they are still permitted to use foreign funds for other work.
But pages such as Canada Campaign and Canadian Conservatives, even if they are being partly run by a Conservative Party activist, can create as many pages and share as much content as they want; if they spend less than $500, they will likely not have to report to Elections Canada.
Facebook, for its part, said it is making an effort to expand reporting on political advertising. “We’ve made significant steps to bring more transparency to ads and pages,” Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada, said in an e-mail statement.
While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ducked a call to testify before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa this week, Facebook did announce that it would be signing on to Ottawa’s Declaration on Election Integrity Online, which calls on social media platforms to combat disinformation and ensure transparency regarding election advertising.