Tasneem Jamal thinks about this fall’s federal election with more than a little despair because of the emotional divisions stoked by disinformation on social media platforms in other recent political campaigns.
And after using social media for years as a national journalist and novelist, the Kitchener mother of two has little faith in Ottawa’s new legislation to protect the upcoming federal elections from foreign hackers, trolls and fake news.
“I think it is great these efforts are being made,” said Jamal. “I think it is important because these platforms are not going away. On a personal level I kind of despair about them.”
Ottawa now requires social media platforms to maintain a registry of partisan and election advertising before and during the start of campaigns. The registry must include the advertising message and the name of the person who authorized it. The idea is that voters can see who is trying to influence them. No foreign funds can be used by third parties for election ads.
A team of senior public servants — the heads of national security agencies, the clerk of the Privy Council, the deputy ministers of the departments of justice, public safety and global affairs — will go public with threats to the election. They will identify the threats and tell Canadians how to protect themselves from it.
“For this election, certainly, I am sure the measures won’t be enough,” said Jamal.
Jamal deleted her Facebook account following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That company took data from an estimated 87 million Facebook users. The data was used to create fake accounts that were deployed in the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, and during the 2016 presidential election campaign in the United States won by Donald Trump. Russian hackers were also active in the last presidential election.
Those international scandals were the tipping point for Jamal. For years, she was increasingly concerned about untrue, misleading and racist content people shared on Facebook. When she complained to the social media giant, nothing was done. When she tried to point out the problems to other Facebook users, Jamal faced nasty backlashes.
“I guess I say I despair because there seems to be such an appetite for a simple, emotional explanation for things,” said Jamal.
When she published a novel “Where the Air is Sweet” in 2014, her publisher wanted her to promote herself and the novel on social media. But troubling Facebook content that was shared without question became too much for her. About a year ago, Jamal reached her limit and deleted her account.
“That was largely why I left,” said Jamal. “And then the Cambridge Analytica stuff just confirmed it for me.”
The Election Modernization Act, which became law in December, is the first attempt by any Canadian government to control the threat to democracy posed by social media — the ability to instantly and widely distribute false information during election campaigns.
Stephanie MacLellan, a senior research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, said Ottawa had the advantage of studying the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the last presidential election in France and the Brexit vote in the U.K. Disinformation campaigns on social media occurred in all three.
MacLellan said it is a great idea to have senior public servants in charge of sounding the alarm about foreign hackers or disinformation. They will make that judgment call based on reports from intelligence services. Politicians will not be involved in deciding when to go public.
“I like that they have depoliticized this as much as possible,” said MacLellan.
Because Canada is an oil producing country with a prime minister who champions immigration, and it is an ally of the U.S., and a member of the G8 and NATO, foreign governments unhappy with any of that may be tempted to disrupt this fall’s federal elections by exploiting social media platforms and other hacking avenues, said MacLellan.
Ottawa is also spending $7 million on digital literacy programs to educate the public about fake content and disinformation campaigns. MacLellan said that’s good because Russia and Iran are still using the internet and social media to sow disruption and divisions within the U.S. long after the last elections there.
“These things are ongoing,” said MacLellan.
The building of new pipelines, expansion of existing pipelines, immigration, climate change and Indigenous rights are all flashpoints that could be exploited by foreign hackers to stoke social discord during the campaign, said Natasha Tusikov, a professor at York University.
“It is people from other countries seeking to isolate and really exacerbate our points of tension,” said Tusikov. “I think that it is always important to pay attention to that.”
The Election Modernization Act let Canadian political parties off the hook, she said. The parties hold large amounts of data on individuals, and an all-party committee recommended rules about what kind of personal data parties can collect and hold, and how it can be used. But the recommendations were ignored in the new legislation.
Tusikov studies the self-regulation of tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and PayPal. She said they do not have any financial incentive to remove bots, fake accounts, bad actors and disinformation campaigns.
“They make money from these viral clicks,” said Tusikov.
The single most important lesson to emerge from the last American presidential election is the absolute necessity of keeping paper ballots, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who wrote “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President.”
All federal elections in Canada are done with paper ballots, but online voting has made steady inroads into municipal elections. Jamieson believes that is OK only if paper ballots remain to provide a permanent, unalterable record of the election.
“Other than that, heightened vigilance by government is a good thing as long as it is not encumbering political speech,” said Jamieson.
She is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s researched political communication for decades and is happy with some of the new regulations south of the border. In the U.S., you cannot buy political advertising on social media without providing a U.S. address. That address is used to confirm the identity of the person buying the ad.
“And if Canada doesn’t have that, that is something Canada should implement,” said Jamieson.
The Communications Security Establishment, Ottawa’s super-secret agency that collects digital and signals intelligence, will be tasked with monitoring the internet before and during the federal elections.
The RCMP will also be doing that. The two agencies are facing an enormous task, said Sean Blenkhorn, field chief technology officer and vice-president of solutions engineering at eSentire, a Cambridge-based cybersecurity company.
“It is a very complex problem,” he said. “There are multiple avenues attackers can take to have a negative impact on the results of an election.”
The company, which has clients around the world, specializes in finding and neutralizing malware before it does any damage.
Protecting networks and data from hackers is one thing, but defending a federal election against hackers is a much bigger job. Chat apps, encryption and posting fake information under the banners of trusted news sources can all be used in disinformation campaigns, Blenkhorn said.
“There is no single solution to this,” he said. “It is a broad program they would be looking at developing, deploying and monitoring.”
When announcing the new laws, the federal government said it expected co-operation from social media companies. Good luck with that, said Alex Kinsella, digital marketing manager at Communitech, the association that advocates for Waterloo Region’s tech sector.
Kinsella deleted his Facebook account because of the low level of most conversations on the platform and because Facebook does not do enough to remove fake content and disinformation campaigns, he said.
“I really didn’t see any proactive effort from them to combat this,” said Kinsella.
Meanwhile, governments must do more to educate citizens about how social media is used and abused during election campaigns, he said.
“We really don’t do enough,” said Kineslla.