Social media marks a new battleground as Canada’s federal election looms

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Federal Election 2019: Social media marks a new election battleground
WATCH: A new breed of partisan advocacy groups are hoping to provoke emotional responses, and influence what you believe and how you vote through social media. Jeff Semple looks at the tactics – Sep 13, 2019

As Canadian political leaders criss-cross the country vying for votes, Jeff Ballingall is fighting this election using his Facebook page.

The former Conservative Party staffer runs Canada Proud, a not-for-profit digital advocacy group whose mission is to defeat Justin Trudeau using a unique combination of internet memes, videos and social media strategy.

“I think we’re talking about issues in a way that legacy media and legacy political parties aren’t,” Ballingall says.

The group packages mocking videos and images of Trudeau with text written in different languages and designed for social media. The content receives upwards of a million online shares, reactions and comments each week — more than some of Canada’s top mainstream news outlets.

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One Facebook video, titled ’Top 10 Stupid Things Trudeau has Done as PM (So Far),’ has been viewed more than four million times, Ballingall says.

“The era of old-style ‘dinosaur’ media dictating what everyone sees and hears is quickly fading. We’re going to see new emerging voices,” Ballingall explained.

“I think that’s largely a good thing.”

WATCH: (Sept. 13, 2019) Winnipeg North Conservative candidate steps down over social media posts

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Winnipeg North Conservative candidate steps down over social media posts

Canada Proud is part of a new wave of online advocacy groups representing both sides of the political spectrum. There are limits governing how much these registered third parties are permitted to spend on political advertising ($511,700 during an election campaign), but those restrictions don’t extend to social media content that goes viral.

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“We don’t have to spend big money to be effective,” Ballingall says.

Canada Proud recently published a video that appears to show Trudeau bragging about bribing Canadian media organizations. But the video editor removed Trudeau’s actual punchline, which was a reference to newspaper headlines condemning his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The Canada Proud version of the video has been viewed online hundreds of thousands of times.

Its Facebook and Twitter pages also shared a report containing a false claim that Canada was due to receive 100,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon (the report included the federal government’s denial).

“You know what things go viral, right? Not anodyne, factual accounts of something, where we’re even-handed and balanced, like a news article,” says Peter Loewen, a professor of political studies at the Unviersity of Toronto.

“Things that go viral are things that appeal to some of our of our baser instincts.”

McGill University Professor Taylor Owen runs the Digital Democracy Project, which is monitoring how Canadians consume news and information online during the Canadian election campaign. He notes that social media platforms, such as Facebook, tend to promote content that provokes strong emotional reactions.

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“And that incentive structure, in the past, has not been particularly well-aligned with quality content about an election,” Owen says. The Digital Democracy Project is conducting national surveys throughout the election campaign to monitor how information on social media influences public opinion.

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More than 23 million Canadians are on Facebook and polls suggest around half of the country’s population receives their news from social media. Loewen says the average person can struggle to differentiate between news and advocacy on their Facebook feed.

“The more people are consuming their news particularly through social media, the more likely they are to present answers which are kind of in favour of their party rather than in favour of the facts,” Loewen said.

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