Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Preventing Social Media from Interfering in Canadian Elections

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Preventing Social Media from Interfering in Canadian Elections

Article excerpt

Preventing social media from interfering in Canadian elections

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Sara Bannerman, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Communication Policy and Governance, McMaster University

The clock is ticking.

Critical Canadian elections are being held in the coming months. The Ontario provincial election is this June, New Brunswick's is in September, the Quebec election is being held in October and the federal election is just a year and seven months away, in October 2019.

Companies that use social media to manipulate attitudes and behaviours are again facing scrutiny due to revelations about lax privacy practices.

Social media propaganda generated by Russian operatives in key swing states during the 2016 presidential election in the United States generated 30 to 40 per cent of election-related tweets, according to a U.S. congressional study. Advertisers can sow information that is duplicitous, inflammatory or false, the report also found.

Facebook has now suspended Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group, not for their long-known practice of amassing personal data from social media and crafting micro-targeted messages to manipulate elections, but for breaking promises to delete the data.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the country's privacy watchdog, has announced that the social media giant is now under investigation

over the use by Cambridge of the personal data of 50 million Facebook users to help elect Donald Trump.

Canada's privacy commissioner has also announced he's launched a formal investigation into Facebook and will look into whether the personal information of Facebook users in Canada was affected.

The power of analytics companies -- and of platforms whose reach is now greater than the most-watched broadcast programming, according to the U.S. Senate study -- requires far greater public accountability.

Advertising has long been aimed at specific populations, whether it's women, LGBTQ audiences or ethno-cultural communities. To some extent, traditional advertising is transparent in that advertisements placed in publications are public and everyone sees the same ad, and understands plainly the target of that ad.

Ads are personalized and opaque

But online advertisements are now so individualized that this is no longer the case; only social media platforms know what information is being targeted to whom.

The data being harvested, and the inferences drawn from such data, permits manipulation on a massive scale that, currently, only social media companies are in a position to see. We're no longer living in a marketplace of ideas, but in a fun house of infinity mirrors.

There's one solution that would go a long way toward combating election manipulation and advertising manipulation more generally: A full public archive of all online ads.

Karina Gould, Canada's minister of democratic institutions, has acknowledged the threats of cyber-attacks and foreign influence on Canadian elections, but in February dismissed many of the solutions that have been proposed to confront these problems. …

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