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The threat to democracy? It's on our screens

Foreign actors are attempting to digitally disrupt our elections and political systems. But this is only half the problem. The other half of the problem is … us.

It used to be so easy to make up your mind at election time. You might nod while watching an ad featuring a desperately grinning politician on TV, knowing that your neighbour was probably chortling over the same ad next door. You might get in a fight with your Aunt Tanya over a talk-radio spot promoting a local candidate who didn't like bike lanes. Either way, there were ground rules. You knew the ground rules, because they were clear and visible and they'd been around forever.

That's all changing, in ways we have barely even begun to acknowledge, let alone describe. The democratic process is being riven not just from the outside – oh, those Russians, in the immortal phrasing of Boney M. – but also from the inside, by our own partisanship and wonky psychology. The social-media platforms where we now seek information and affirmation have proved to be the perfect terrain for a lightning-fast bobsled run down to disinformation.

"Frankly, the United States is under attack," the U.S. director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. Russia is so pleased with the results of its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election – the Facebook ads it bought, the troll armies that spread its lies, the Twitter bots that amplified those lies – that it is planning to do the same in the 2018 midterm elections. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it already is meddling in the midterms elections. And, on Friday, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals for allegedly interferring in the 2016 election.

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And what about Canada? "We expect that multiple hacktivist groups will very likely deploy cyber capabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election," the Communications Security Establishment warned in a June, 2017, report. Around the same time, a Senate committee noted that our electoral laws are not keeping pace with digital reality: "There is a growing concern that Canada's own electoral process is vulnerable to foreign interference."

I like the succinctness of a new report, Digital Threats to Democratic Elections, from researchers at the University of British Columbia: "Our democracy is under digital attack." There are many reasons for this rat king of entangled threats: the cheapness and easiness of digital platforms as a way to spread and amplify messages of dissent; a lack of new-media savvy among voters; rules around election advertising and oversight that are out of date; the decline of old-school authoritative news sources; political partisanship, which means that people seek out and share information, no matter how dubious, that reinforces their ideology. Whatever the causes, experts agree that democratic processes have been tampered with around the world and the problem is getting worse.

Facebook, stung badly by criticisms over selling ads to Russia and for the opacity of its targeted advertising in general, has made a show of calming the waters. So far, though, it's bringing a Band-Aid to a machete fight. It launched a Canadian "election integrity initiative" last year which, at this point, seems limited to warning political campaigns how to keep their digital platforms safe. The social-media giant, a fount of information for its 23 million Canadians users, has also started a transparency trial in Canada over its advertising – if you click on an advertiser's page, you can see where an ad is currently running, even if you're not part of the target audience. At the moment, this trial seems like window-dressing – first, it assumes an optimistic degree of diligence and awareness on the part of the average user and, second, it doesn't account for the vast number of ads on the platform and the rate at which they can change.

As Taylor Owen, assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at UBC, said when I phoned to ask him about the Facebook experiment: "Yes, you as an individual can dig deep on any single ad and find out where it's run but when you add AI into the mix, which you can't ignore, then a campaign could be running tens of thousands of ads simultaneously that change minute by minute. … Making a page's ads transparent doesn't really tell us anything if they're running 100,000 a day." (Prof. Owen isn't part of the UBC study mentioned above.)

So Aunt Tanya could be seeing ads completely separate from yours, targeted to her as a bike-hating, dog-loving, merlot-drinking condo-dweller. This becomes a problem when, as the CSE report points out, 51 per cent of Canadians get their news from digital sources first. How are we expected to formulate common goals and reach some kind of accommodation with each other as citizens when we're all experiencing a different reality?

Quite apart from bad actors illicitly buying ads to sow discord, or political campaigns legally but deviously micro-targeting groups, there is another threat. That is, as Pogo famously stated, us. We love the sugar-rush of a good political meme, even if it's bogus. We will happily follow YouTube down its rabbit hole of ever more conspiratorial videos. And this rush is amplified when we share spurious content and get clicks and likes in return.

You only have to look at the partisan torqueing of Justin Trudeau's "peoplekind" joke: a silly softball lobbed during a townhall, and accepted as such by the audience, became a weapon in the hands of his political enemies. The Prime Minister said he wasn't serious, but his defence came too late: The virus, in the form of memes and videos, had already spread. That is not a virus that fact-checkers can inoculate against. Perhaps Mr. Trudeau took some satisfaction in telling Facebook, as the Toronto Star recently reported, to solve its fake news problems or face the consequences.

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The next federal election will be held in 2019. There will be provincial and municipal elections before then. The Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, is working on strengthening cyber walls, and a Senate committee has made recommendations for updating our electoral defences, too. These measures will be useful against enemies from outside our borders. I'm not sure what we do about the problem inside.

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