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Changes needed to keep fake news, foreign interference out of B.C. election process: report

In the May 2017 provincial election, 57.73 of eligible British Columbians showed up to vote. Global News

British Columbia’s chief electoral officer is calling on the province to make changes to prevent the spread of fake news, foreign interference and anonymous advertising during provincial elections.

In a report made public on Monday, Anton Boegman says the threats of misinformation through social media have not been widely observed in B.C., but the risks are real.

“As British Columbians work to overcome the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, I know that currently there are other, much more pressing priorities for the Legislative Assembly,” Boegman said.

“But, I encourage legislators to take proactive steps to safeguard our electoral process before the province’s next provincial election, currently scheduled for October 16, 2021”.

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Work on the report began in the summer of 2018, following the publication of an interim report on disinformation and fake news in the U.K. and media coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

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Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie said in 2018 that Victoria-based AggregateIQ worked on software called Ripon, which was used to identify Republican voters ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

READ MORE: Whistleblower says Canadian firm built software to identify Republican voters in 2016

An investigation found AggregateIQ failed to meet its obligations under Canadian privacy laws when it used and disclosed the personal information of millions of voters in B.C., the United States and the United Kingdom.

The investigation conducted by the provincial and national privacy watchdogs found the company failed to ensure appropriate consent for its use and disclosure of the personal information of voters.

The Elections BC report, which includes six main recommendations, looks into how the province can proactively respond to potential disinformation and foreign interference in an election.

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“These recommendations will ensure our electoral legislation is fit-for-purpose in the 21st century,” Boegman said.

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“While many provisions in current legislation are equally effective regardless of whether campaigning is analog or digital, certain aspects should be changed to ensure our regulatory framework is effective in today’s digital environment.”

Elections BC is recommending the province introduce restrictions on intentionally impersonating or making certain false statements about political parties, candidates or Elections BC.

The rules would need to have specific restrictions on deliberate disinformation about the electoral process including voting eligibility, dates, times and locations.

READ MORE: Whistleblower says Victoria company AIQ worked on software to find Republican voters

The current system is also vulnerable to foreign online funding for election advertising.

“We are fortunate that to date the cyber threats described in our report have not been widely observed in a provincial election in British Columbia,” Boegman said.

“I look forward to working with all members of the legislative assembly to take proactive steps now to protect our democracy from such threats in the future.”

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Foreign and out-of-province entities currently may be able to indirectly or anonymously provide funding to registered third-party advertising sponsors.

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Elections B.C. would like to require individuals who sponsor third-party advertising to be a B.C. resident. Organizations that sponsor third-party advertising should be registered within B.C. and have one or more directors who reside in the province.

Additional recommendations include:

  • Requiring social media bots that publish election advertising to disclose their automated nature in a clear and unambiguous way, so that any reasonable person would know they are communicating with a bot.
  • Expanding the definition of election advertising to include directed advertising sponsored in the 12 months leading up to an election and issue-based advertising in the six months leading up to an election.
  • Requiring advertisers to post their ads to a publicly accessible digital advertising registry.
  • Requiring all digital platforms that publish election advertising to remove non-compliant content within a specific time-frame.
  • Establishing a duty of care for digital platforms that obliges them to minimize the harm caused by non-compliant content.

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