The social media giant has come under heavy scrutiny over the use of its platform to display fake news stories and advertisements designed to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Facebook news feed was infiltrated by several false and hoax stories during the hotly contested final stretch of the election, with its algorithms blamed for not rooting out intentionally misleading content. Facebook also admitted recently that tens of thousands of dollars were spent by Russian-linked operatives on advertising designed to stoke racial tensions among U.S. voters.
To thwart similar problems besetting the Canadian democratic process, Facebook on Thursday unveiled its Canadian Election Integrity Initiative.
The program will include a digital news literacy campaign targeting regular Canadians, “cyber hygiene” training for Canadian politicians, and the creation of a crisis hotline for politicians and political parties whose digital accounts have been hacked.
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The initiative was designed to address specific challenges identified by the Communications Security Establishment’s (CSE) cyber-threat assessment report, said Facebook Canada’s head of public policy Kevin Chan.
“We know that Facebook plays an important role in facilitating public dialogue,” Chan said in a press release. “That’s why we take the threats identified by the CSE very seriously and why we’re starting now to proactively address them.”
Chan added that the Canadian initiative marked “the next step in Facebook’s global efforts with respect to election integrity.”
The digital news literacy component of the initiative will run in partnership with MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization focusing on media literacy.
Dubbed “Reality Check,” the program will look to promote research, foster education and release public service announcements to teach Canadians how to spot misinformation and false news online, something Chan labelled an “essential life and citizenship skill.”
At a panel discussion to mark the launch of the initiative, Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts’ director of education, said the modern digital environment behooves people to take responsibility when it comes to scrutinizing the content they come across.
“We really, in many ways, can’t rely on other people to act as gatekeepers anymore,” Johnson said. “In the end, we today are responsible for filtering our own information, and we are responsible as a society for empowering everyone to be active citizens online, taking active steps to improve their online communities.”
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Anatoliy Gruzd, research director of the Ryerson University Social Media Lab, said the Russian-led misinformation campaign underscored the importance of better social media education.
“As Canada is one of the most connected countries in the world… I think it’s becoming very critical for us to understand how communication platforms such as social media influence what we see online and what we do offline.”
While ordinary Canadians learn to be more discerning when reading and sharing news articles, politicians will be taught to better protect their social media accounts.
To this end, a cyber hygiene guide will be sent to all Canadian federal politicians and their teams, in an effort to empower them with best practice guidelines to deal with phishing and other cyber threats, while also arming them with strategies to secure their social media presence.
Politicians and political parties will also get access to a special cyber threats email line, effectively a “direct pipeline” to the Facebook security team, to help them get fast and streamlined responses to hacked pages and accounts.
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Canada’s Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould said such measures were of crucial importance in the digital age.
“The issue of foreign influence and the spread of misinformation is by no means a new phenomenon,” Gould said. “But the digital age has provided malicious actors with more ways than ever before to pursue their objectives in a rapid and constantly evolving manner.”
In addition to empowering regular Canadians and lawmakers with new tools, Facebook says it’s also working towards greater advertiser transparency, faster reviews of inauthentic content and more effective identification of fake accounts.
“We expect to take many more actions as part of the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative in the next two years,” Chan said, adding that the newly announced initiative merely marked the “first phase” of a series of interventions that will continue well beyond the next federal election.
However, he cautioned that partners from all sectors of society would need to step up to battle the scourge of fake news and manipulative advertising.
“We are obviously only one player in a much broader ecosystem,” Chan said.