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British Columbia Facebook shuts down accounts attacking candidates in Vancouver election

Facebook has shut down two accounts linked to Vancouver’s civic election, declaring the accounts violate its policies and that the company has placed a priority on preventing election interference.

Facebook took down one account that was promoting mayoral candidate Hector Bremner, under the name Vancouverites for Affordable Housing. Another account disparaging the Non-Partisan Association’s (NPA) candidate with the page name Vancouver Deserves Better Than Ken Sim was also taken down.

“This is honestly just the nastiest election cycle ever,” said Mike Witherly, who is a campaign strategist with the NPA. The party complained about both of the Facebook pages that were ultimately taken down.

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“I think people are getting ideas as they see the investigation into Russian interference [in the American elections]. It’s giving people a sense of its effectiveness and prompting people to try it.”

A Facebook spokesman, who declined to be named because only company executives can be quoted in the media, said the account Vancouverites for Affordable Housing was removed for violating the company’s “authenticity policy.” That policy, among other things, requires that users do not misrepresent their identities by creating a fake account under an assumed name.

The account attacking Mr. Sim was removed for violating Facebook’s spam policy, which bars Facebook users from creating fake accounts to impersonate others or to use the account to create connections and content, the Facebook spokesman said.

Facebook has been under increasing scrutiny after allegations that its platform was used to gather voters' personal data and also to target voters with specious, anonymous attack ads against political candidates.

Facebook has been stung by criticism that its platform delivered misinformation that distorted the democratic process in Britain during the Brexit vote and has faced mounting concerns that it will be used to whip up political unrest for the fall midterm elections in the United States.

Despite the two deletions, there are still multiple Twitter and Facebook accounts publishing derogatory and potentially defamatory information about other candidates in the B.C. civic elections, including a page targeting Tom Gill, running as the mayoral candidate for Surrey First, and an account that targeted Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

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One experienced campaigner says the negative social-media campaigns are partly the result of people looking for ways to influence elections now that fundraising is restricted.

“We’ve seen some of this before. But what’s made the difference this year, are the new regulations,” said Norman Stowe, who has been involved in many elections at different levels. He is working with Surrey First this year. “This time, there is more money available for this kind of stuff,” because people are being limited to $1,200 individual donations as part of the provincial campaign-finance rules for civic elections.

The dilemma for many candidates is what to do about the social-media attacks. Some say they just ignore the accounts, which often have very few followers.

“It is unfortunately part of the new social networking that is sort of the dark side,” said Doug McCallum, who is running as a mayoral candidate with a new party called Safe Surrey Coalition. He is being regularly vilified by a Twitter account called McCallum Rewind.

Mr. Gill’s party, Surrey First, said it is focusing on its positive campaign, not the tweets that excoriate Mr. Gill. Defamatory material about Ms. Helps appears to have been removed, although her campaign did not respond to say whether it had asked for that.

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Simon Fraser University communications professor Peter Chow White said that, although the social-media attacks may seem like a new trend, they’re part of a tradition that goes back centuries.

He said most people are likely to discount them, precisely because they are anonymous.

“Is it worrisome? Sure, it’s public discourse. But we also know when we see things that are anonymous, we take them with a grain of salt.”

Twitter did not respond to an interview request from The Globe and Mail.

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