The 2016 U.S. presidential election was unfairly undermined by online social media ads containing fake news, lies about candidates, and other false claims. These ads were targeted at tens of millions of voters, and only those voters would see them in their Facebook and other social media feeds. As a result, election watchdog agencies could do nothing to stop these secret ads.
Secret false social media ads will very likely mislead millions of voters in the next Canadian election (and possibly in provincial elections) — unless they are effectively stopped.
It is already illegal for foreigners to intervene, and for anyone to make false claims about an election candidate, in federal elections and in most jurisdictions across Canada. The federal Canada Elections Act, and election laws in seven provinces, also limit the amount lobby groups and individuals can spend on election ads — to stop wealthy interests from dominating election debates.
However, if those groups and individuals can advertise in secret on social media sites or with targeted ads on media sites, they can easily make false claims and spend much more than the legal limit without Elections Canada or the Commissioner of Canada Elections finding them.
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Federal political party leaders need to work together and pass a law to:
- prohibit media and social media companies from publishing election-related ads during the six months leading up to an election if the ad is paid for with foreign currency (such as Russian rubles);
- require media and social media companies to report every election-related ad to the head of the election law enforcement agency during the six months leading up to an election so the ad can be reviewed to determine if it makes a clearly false claim about a party or candidate;
- require media and social media companies to report to the election law enforcement agency who placed and paid for each ad, and how much was spent on the ad, so the agency can determine if the amount spent on the ad violates the legal limit (including the amount spent on having employees or contractors or bots share, like or retweet the ad);
- require the government to establish an independent commission (whose members are appointed by non-governmental bodies like the Canadian Judicial Council) to conduct a public, merit-based search for the head of the election law enforcement agency, and to give a shortlist of nominees to the leaders of parties that have politicians in the legislature, and require the leaders to choose from the shortlist one person to head the election agency.
- give the head of the election law enforcement agency the power to order clearly false, illegal ads be deleted from media and social media sites, and require the head of the agency to issue these orders within a few days of receiving the information about each ad, and;
- give the head of the election enforcement agency the power to impose significant fines on media and social media companies and advertisers who violate the rules (the fines must be large enough to discourage attempts to violate the rules).
Like media companies, social media companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter know who pays for each ad on their site, how much they spend, and what each ad says — so they can easily report this information to the election law enforcement agency. If the head of the agency is appointed after a merit-based search by a fully independent commission, and with the unanimous approval of all party leaders in the House of Commons, the head will have the independence and impartiality needed to make fair rulings about whether election-related social media ads are true or clearly false, and to verify whether the amount spent on an ad is more than the legal limit.
See details about the dangers of fake online election ads in the following recent articles and news releases:
- New federal government actions, and Bill C-76, won’t stop secret, fake online election ads (Media Release, January 30, 2019)
- More than 15,000 Canadians have signed online petitions calling for changes recommended by House Committee to strengthen privacy protection and online election ad disclosure and accountability (Media Release, June 20, 2018)
- Democracy Watch calls for changes to stop secret fake online election ads that can easily violate spending limits (Media Release, March 28, 2018)
- Democracy Watch calls for changes to stop fake online election ads (Media Release, November 14, 2017)
- ‘One of our greatest challenges in the digital era’: Worrying about democracy means thinking about Facebook (CBC.ca, October 28, 2017)
- ‘Fake news 2.0’: A threat to Canada’s democracy (Globe and Mail, May 28, 2017)
- Facebook and Twitter are being used to manipulate public opinion in 9 countries (The Guardian, June 19, 2017)
- Hactivist groups ‘very likely’ to target 2019 federal election: CSE (Global News, June 16, 2017)
- Canada’s spy agency expects cyberattacks during 2019 federal election (CBC News, June 16, 2017)
- Majority of Canadians can’t spot fake news — poll (Global News, May 26, 2017)
- Should Facebook tell you more about political ads? (Maclean’s, May 9, 2017)