All three have been accused over the last two years of letting themselves be used by Russian attempts to influence the 2016 American election and as a new procurement posting suggests, they are just a few of the social media sites Elections Canada wants to keep an even closer eye on as it tracks risks and trends ahead of the 2019 Canadian election.
To do that, the elections agency plans to buy what it calls a “social media and open source data listening and analytics tool.”
In a notice of proposed procurement posted on Tuesday morning, the elections agency writes that it needs the new tool to be able to “listen, in near real time, to key influencers to identify potential issues that may affect the election early on,” as well as to “detect, through timely and accurate notifications, potential incidents and trends affecting the integrity of Canadian electoral events in near real time.”
The system must also be able to identify and help connect geo-located incidents and monitor specific hashtags, keywords, handles and accounts.
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“The prevalence of social media use among Canadians and the degree to which it permeates their lives makes social media listening and open source research a crucial element for real-time situational awareness of the electoral environment and identification of possible issues that can affect the electoral process,” the agency wrote in the posting.
Tracking social media itself isn’t entirely new — a spokesperson for Elections Canada told Global News the agency has done it in one way or another in years past.
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With this request, which requires the tool be able to be used by up to 15 people at once including those working remotely, the agency wants to make sure it can coordinate those monitoring activities even more closely in an environment that is significantly different from those before.
“Elections Canada has monitored social media during previous elections and will continue to do so to remain informed about our operating environment, as well as to respond to any developments related to the electoral process that could impact Canadians’ ability to register and vote,” wrote Natasha Gauthier, senior media relations advisor at the agency, in an email.
That posting comes seven months after the federal government set aside millions of dollars in the budget to better protect Canadian elections from threats, in additions of billions that went to the Canadian signals intelligence agency.
Budget 2018 allocated $7.1 million over five years to the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
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Elections Canada also reallocated $14 million over the next two years to hire more staff to protect the electoral system.
Specifically, finance officials told Global News that around $3 million of that which had been intended to be used to hire contract staff would instead be used to bring people on full time to work on preventing attempts to interfere with the upcoming election.
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The last two years have seen repeated attempts linked to Russia to influence or interfere with elections in Western democracies.
France, Sweden, Germany and Britain are just a few of the European countries to have determined Russia interfered in their democratic process over the last several years.
American Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee say that at least 19 European countries have recently been the target of Russia interference.
Those attempts include funding far-right parties that disrupt or challenge democratic norms, using social media to exploit social divisions such as the Black Lives Matter movement and spread disinformation, and using spies and hackers to both damage and support candidates the Kremlin opposes or prefers.
America itself is not immune, as the broad swaths of evidence gathered since the 2016 presidential election suggest.
And Canada shouldn’t be sleeping easy, either.
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Former FBI head James Comey warned in June while speaking at an event in Ottawa that Russia “succeeded beyond their wildest dreams” with the influence campaign against the 2016 American election and that “they will do it again.”
“If this can happen to the United States or indeed to Britain because it was a part of the Brexit campaign, too, it can certainly happen to Canada,” British historian Niall Ferguson told Global’s The West Block earlier this year in advance of releasing a new book studying the vast power of social networks.
Scott Brison, who served as temporary democratic institutions minister earlier this year while Karina Gould took maternity leave, also said the government is facing a need to act quickly ahead of the election.
“We are as a government writ large taking digital security and cyber threats very seriously,” he also told The West Block.
“There is certainly urgency to this.”
On April 30, Brison introduced Bill C-76, also known as the Elections Modernization Act which proposes making it illegal for organizations to accept foreign advertising aimed at “unduly influencing” elections in Canada.
That bill is currently before a House of Commons committee for study and still faces several months of review in the Senate before it can become law.
Stephane Perrault, Canada’s chief electoral officer, has said Elections Canada is already preparing to implement the provisions in the bill despite it not yet being law because of the tight time frame between when the bill might actually be passed and the lead-up to the federal election.