On Tuesday, backbench Liberal MP Frank Baylis described Canada’s current legal framework governing online platforms like Facebook as the “Wild West.” He’s right.
As we’ve seen from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and from Facebook’s own admissions about how much data it is collecting, even from people who don’t use its service, anything goes at the moment.
But at the same time, there is also nothing to control how Canadian political parties collect and use the vast amounts of data they gather to target, sway and mobilize voters.
The good news is there is a simple solution to that particular problem. Both Liberal and Conservative members of the Commons privacy committee expressed support this week for calls to subject political parties to federal privacy laws.
That’s a good idea. Making parties play by the same data-collection and protection rules as banks and airlines – and subjecting them to the possibility of being investigated by the privacy commissioner’s office – holds both practical and symbolic value.
It won’t fix all the problems with the untamed online frontier – a broader legislative reform is required for that – but it’s a start. And there’s an urgent need to get moving on this.
New research from the 2016 U.S. election suggests targeted, highly partisan messages both from political parties and outside organizations – particularly those that traffic in fake news – might be able to sway sufficient numbers of voters to swing a close election.
In February, researchers at Ohio State University published a paper – it has yet to be peer-reviewed – that found that small but significant numbers of swing voters in Democratic states believed it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that Hillary Clinton was in failing health (12 per cent), or approved arms sales to ISIS (20 per cent), or that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy (eight per cent).
All those stories are canards, but those who believed them were more than three times as likely to flip their vote. The authors concluded it is “highly likely” that distorted and fake news affected the outcome.
In a data memo published last month, academics at Oxford University found that junk news, i.e. “ideological extremism, misinformation and the intention to persuade readers to respect or hate a candidate or policy based on emotional appeals,” outperforms real news in terms of reach when disseminated by so-called “bots” on social media (they specifically examined the state of Michigan in 2016).
A forthcoming study in the journal Political Communication, peer-reviewed this time, tracked more than five-million targeted political ads on Facebook in the six weeks leading up to the 2016 U.S. election.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found 122 groups that purchased and ran commercials on hot-button subjects – guns, race, terrorism and the like – that were unknown to federal electoral regulators. One-sixth had links to the Russian-funded Internet Research Agency, which has previously turned its sights on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and projects like the Keystone XL pipeline.
The environment in which political campaigns are fought matters. What the American example shows is the contours of that environment are shifting in our polarized and partisan online world, and much of it is happening beyond our view, because fake news campaigns are only seen by relatively small numbers of carefully targeted voters.
For all we know, sub rosa online influence campaigns are conditioning Canada’s increasingly acrimonious pipeline debate, or the provincial election campaign currently unfolding in Ontario. There is no way to tell.
What Canada needs is laws governing internet companies, something the European Union has already put in place. But that will take time. In the interim, the Trudeau government should take up Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien’s suggestion to extend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act to political parties. And it should do it before the 2019 federal election.
Mr. Therrien said this week the government has made overtures, “but I still do not see a very clear intent to act.”
If this basic reform does not materialize, Canada’s political parties will appear to have placed their strategic interests ahead of setting an example, and of launching the broader effort to tame the lawlessness of the online world.