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The likes and dislikes of 50 million Facebook users were scooped up, usually without their knowledge, and fed to a firm of Machiavellian political consultants so they could manipulate voters with micro-targeted messages designed to pull their psychological triggers and corral their vote.

This incident, with a Canadian connection in the form of whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, has brought the practice of political micro-targeting into the public eye.

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A 3D-printed Facebook logo and Like are seen in front of displayed stock graph in this illustration photo.DADO RUVIC/Reuters

But it’s not really the protection of Canadians’ Facebook likes that is the critical issue for our democratic system. It’s transparency.

The real danger is political operatives targeting messages at narrow tranches of the Canadian electorate that the rest of us never get to see.

The idea is that everyone should see who is targeting whom, with what. “You can micro-target, and no one can say you can’t. But you have to tell us about it,” said Lori Turnbull, the Dalhousie University political science professor who authored a Public Policy Forum report published last week.

That report is mostly about traditional methods for making elections more fair — by limiting spending, notably on third parties and foreign donors. But its social-media recommendations take account of the fact that in the digital age, the concern is not only the influence of money but the transparency of the message.

It was once common to call out federal politicians for saying one thing in French to appeal to Quebec voters and another, contradictory thing in English.

That was disingenuous and misleading, and likely to reap divisions. But it got harder to do that blatantly once people started looking for it, as the country grew more bilingual, and it became more difficult to say things that wouldn’t be recorded or reported.

But with social media, there’s a potential for far more to be hidden: promises made to one small segment that other Canadians don’t hear; contradictory statements or promises to several segments; or ginning up the support of specific groups by fuelling noxious or racist sentiments.

It’s been relatively hard to do that – if a politician put an ad on TV, everyone heard it. Sparking tensions with one group would turn off many; promising patronage for one province can backfire in another.

But that kind of public accountability has become weaker with social-media advertising and messaging, where each ad might be seen only by a small slice of the population, changing every few hours and hard to retrace later.

The PPF recommendation for a registry of social-media ads would add a little transparency – at least for political parties.

It’s not everything: social media allows a lot of anonymity, and tracking third-party political messages on social media is famously hard. Still, before you fight the morass of bots, fake accounts, or foreign troll farms, it’s worth taking a step to make the legal campaigns of political parties accountable.

That’s because the key thing with micro-targeted messages in a democracy is knowing who is doing the targeting and what messages are being aimed at the targets.

That’s not to say that keeping private data confidential isn’t important. Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Thursday that the fact that the Privacy Act does not apply to political parties is an “important gap” that could jeopardize the integrity of the political process.

But the misuse of data where political tactics firm Cambridge Analytica obtained the data of 50 million users was notable mainly because the actual data changed hands. Facebook already had the personal data, and it’s more than happy to sell “audiences” with specific characteristics to marketers, including political campaigns. Parties can put together their own database of 1,000 people, then ask Facebook to advertise to a similar audience 50 times as large. And Facebook and Google are already selling your characteristics to private companies so that they can target you.

So will the government adopt the transparency measures the PPF suggests? Don’t expect them to rush. Modern political parties are essentially electoral machines, and they jealously guard every potential tactical advantage – their strategists won’t like revealing their micro-messaging in real time. But for the public at large, political parties serve one key purpose – to provide accountability. Without transparency, micro-targeting will allow future election campaigns to be conducted unseen.

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