Ever since Russia was accused of hacking and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, online disinformation campaigns have become a staple of democratic elections around the world.
A team of Canadian academics and data scientists, however, is now working to prevent Canada from joining the list of countries that have fallen prey to these deliberate attempts at democratic distortion.
“We want to bring more transparency to how information is spread and consumed during the election, and the impact it’s having on voter behaviour,” explains McGill University professor Taylor Owen.
Owen leads the Digital Democracy Project (DDP), a first-of-its-kind initiative to monitor how information is consumed and shared online during the Canadian federal election campaign.
“In the old days, we could look at every newspaper you could read in the country and have a sense of what everyone was being exposed to. Now, it’s much harder to know what people are being exposed to online, because a lot of that information is very, very targeted,” says Peter Loewen, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a member of the DDP’s analysis team.
“One concern is that foreign actors get involved in our elections — that used to be hard to do. But there are ways now to appear to be a legitimate actor and to get into the discourse by buying ads online or by engaging in particular digital campaigns.”
Those fears about the possibility of foreign actors sowing discord and disinformation in an election campaign are well-founded. Since the aforementioned U.S. example, more than 30 other countries have had their elections targeted, from France and Germany to Brazil and Australia.
The tactics have included fake online news articles, doctored photos and audio recordings. The content is often shared and promoted using fake online accounts and automated Twitter bots.
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“When it comes to elections, it’s very easy now for people to manipulate public opinion using free and very simple technologies that can change the way that people perceive candidates or policies,” says Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft News, a non-profit that tackles misinformation worldwide.
Further, she adds, Russia is no longer the game’s only player.
“Not just Russia, but potentially places like Iran or Saudi Arabia and China,” Wardle explains. “And there are domestic actors that we need to also be aware of.
“Anybody who wants to have an influence can and can do it pretty easily, without even having a trace that they’ve been trying to meddle in an election.”
The Digital Democracy Project is hoping to change that. Each week during the Canadian election campaign, they’ll analyze hundreds of thousands of social media posts that pertain to the election, in order to study what issues are being discussed and, if necessary, to trace fake news reports and rumours back to their source.
“We’re interested in, for instance, identifying one particular rumour and then figuring out where that rumour entered the social media ecosystem,” says Derek Ruths, a data scientist at McGill University.
“If it’s a hashtag, who was the first user? Or what was the first context in which that hashtag was used?”
In addition to that forensic analysis, the project will also be conducting regular national surveys to see how information shared online and on social media is influencing public opinion.
“We think this is the first time, at this scale, that these two tools have been brought together to really understand how the media environment is shaping the election,” Owen says.
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The project is funded in part by the federal government, which is investing tens of millions to combat election meddling, while also tightening the rules around online policy adverting.
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“The Canadian government has started to put together a focus on identifying these threats,” says Peter Singer, a strategist at the Washington-based think tank New America and author of the book LikeWar – The Weaponization of Social Media.
“And so now, in the United States, we’re looking at Canada and saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing the same thing here?’”
“I think Canada is the most prepared of any country on the global stage,” Wardle says. “I think the the shifts that Canada’s government has put in place, in terms of these rapid response units, the money it’s put into it, the global partnerships it has built, it’s actually the most prepared of all countries that I work with.”