"We don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy."
Mark Zuckerberg. Image: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
There are nearly as many Canadians who use Facebook daily as there are people in this country who are registered to vote—which is why the federal government is working with Facebook to protect its next federal election from fake news, filter bubbles, and cyber meddling.
The Canadian Election Integrity Initiative, which was designed ahead of the 2019 federal election, was spurred by a cyber-threat assessment conducted by the government's Communications Security Establishment. The report, titled "Cyber Threats to Canada's Democratic Process," comes in the wake of revelations about cyber meddling in recent elections—namely in the US, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Elements of Facebook's new focus on election integrity were on display last month, when Facebook said it took down thousands of fake accounts in Germany ahead of that country's election.
Facebook is now facing perhaps its biggest test as it looks to curb foreign electoral interference and the rampant disinformation on its platform, both of which undermine the nature of democracy.
Facebook Canada's election integrity project includes a partnership with a local digital news media literacy organization MediaSmarts, as well as a "cyberhygiene guide" that highlights particular vulnerabilities such as phishing and page-admin authentication. Facebook also has a crisis email line to help politicians and parties with hacking concerns.
Since Donald Trump won the US presidency, explosive details have been published in the media detailing how Russia worked systematically to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. A major component of that influence was peddled via social media, and Facebook in particular, which saw thousands of fake accounts, suspicious ad buys, and reams of disinformation.
Just yesterday, Recode reported that a top executive at the social media company admitted that Russian agents used Facebook Messenger as part of its US election interference campaign.
What happened in the US is a warning to other nations facing their own impending elections and the impetus for the Facebook to enact an election integrity initiative in Canada. It's clear this is part of Facebook's global approach to addressing how its platform is used in future elections.
The initiative was rolled out at a swanky luncheon hosted by the Economic Club of Canada, a non-partisan speaker's forum, at Ottawa's Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel on Thursday. Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada's head of public policy, said the social media company is working on preventing bad actors from interfering with the democratic process.
"At Facebook we take our responsibilities seriously," Chan said. "We don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy."
Karina Gould, Canada's Minister of Democratic Institutions, name-checked certain issues that shaped the outcome of the US election, namely fake news, concerted disinformation campaigns, and the overarching foreign influence that infiltrated social media.
Zuckerberg once told the media it was a "pretty crazy idea" that Facebook had helped elevate Trump to the presidency
The misinformation that gets injected into our online exchanges and public discussions have worked to erode the public's faith in traditional media and distort our understanding of the issues at hand, Gould noted. "This has resulted in what's known as a 'filter bubble,'" she said. "It's easier than ever to hear only what you want to hear, and that doesn't make a good citizen."
According to the cyber-threat assessment, Canada observed "low-sophistication cyber threat activity" during the 2015 election that won Justin Trudeau the prime ministership. However, she noted, 2019 will be a whole new ball game—especially after the shocking results of the US election.
"Social media platforms must begin to view themselves as actors in shaping the democratic discourse," the minister said.
Previously, Mark Zuckerberg has been reluctant to tackle Facebook's fake news problem. In the days following the US election he told the media it was a "pretty crazy idea" that Facebook had somehow helped elevate Trump to the presidency.
He's since changed his tune. The company has promised to hire thousands of workers globally to help review flagged and suspicious content, as well as use machine learning to identify suspicious patterns of behavior on its platform. Most importantly, Facebook has also vowed to reform advertising on the platform. Chan said at the luncheon that Facebook users should be able to see who commissioned an ad displayed on their newsfeeds.
In Canada, rules on third-party campaign advertising already exist. Minister Gould said it's also "illegal for foreign entities to try and influence the outcome of an election." Penalties for breaking those rules can include a fine of up to $50,000 or five years in prison, or both, she added.
Gould also said she's currently reviewing Canada's Elections Act to "ensure fairness and electoral integrity."
All eyes will be on Canada's 2019 election as Facebook works to prove the efficacy of its new measures to combat foreign influence and the prevalence of fake news on its platform.
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