Over the next 18 months, at least four elections will shape the future of this nation.
Starting in Ontario, followed by Quebec, Alberta and the country as a whole, voters will go to the polls. New Brunswick also votes this year and another vote in British Columbia cannot be ruled out.
But with these key contests looming, there has been very little serious discussion in this country about how voters will receive information they need to cast informed ballots, and the overall security of our democratic process.
It’s time for a serious look at how our votes can be manipulated by “bots” and fake news, and whether the electoral process itself is safe from meddling by internal or external sources.
Federal MPs began important hearings Tuesday on data privacy concerns and their repercussions, and Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien made it clear the data of 622,161 Canadians harvested from Facebook could be used to influence an election in this country.
Yet there is a puzzling, laissez-faire approach from our governments, which seem to find comfort in studies that show the remnants of the mainstream media hold greater levels of trust here than their peers in other countries.
They seem to still take false security from the fact Canada has largely immune to interference or onslaughts of fake news, the likes of which we have seen in Britain, France and the United States. We like to think that we are fail-safe because we have paper ballot backups, but a cyber attack could corrupt the process before we need to start counting by hand.
The Communications Security Establishment has warned that cyber attacks on the 2019 federal election can be expected, and Facebook has promised an “election integrity’’ project ahead of that vote.
Part of that initiative will involve an education program from Ottawa-based MediaSmarts, which will try to educate citizens on how to spot fake news, differentiate between fact and opinion, and identify malicious posts.
A study for Elections Canada recommends a process for monitoring and regulating bots, which mimic the social media accounts of real people to spread propaganda and misinformation, shape public opinion or spread malicious attacks against candidates.
Rolled together, these are helpful, but largely amount to band aids. Something more substantive is required.
There are lessons for Canada in Europe.
All major parties in Germany agreed before last year’s parliamentary elections there that they would not use social media bots and would strongly condemn their use.
They also passed a law providing penalties of up to $ 60 million for social networking providers who did not quickly take down defamatory or fake news reports.
An Oxford University study found only a tiny fraction of social media election traffic came from automated accounts, overwhelmingly from the far right anti-immigration party.
Further, German social media users shared links to professional news sources over junk news sources by a ratio of 4:1, a much higher rate than the researchers found in the U.S. or U.K. elections.
In this country, political bot campaigns have so far been ham-handed and largely ineffective.
Elizabeth Dubois, an assistant communications professor at the University of Ottawa studied the use of bots in the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race, has suggested parties transparently declare whether they are using them – and for what purpose – during a campaign.
Indeed, banning them may be going too far because not all bots are evil. Parties can use bots to amplify policy announcements, for example.
With 9.5 million millennials eligible to vote in the coming elections, it is important to look at where they might go to build their voting acumen.
Canadians still overwhelmingly favour Facebook when we use social media. YouTube is the second most favoured, with Twitter next (although with just a fraction of the interaction of Facebook).
But numerous studies have indicated YouTube will take over as the most popular social media platform for young voters – those voting for the first or second time this year or next – followed by Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook and Twitter lag far behind.
By 2020, close to 80 per cent of global internet traffic will be attributed to video.
Canadians will continue to surround themselves with more sophisticated devices, which will make them vulnerable to manipulation, and the dark side of human nature will continue to lure the mischievous and malicious to evermore sophisticated ways to manipulate.
The question is whether our policymakers are sufficiently literate on data manipulation to deal with a threat that is out there for all to see.
Tim Harper is a former Star reporter and Toronto-based freelance columnist. Tjharper77@gmail.com Twitter: @nutgraf1