'The stakes are high': Political shills in full force online during election debate

Comments from users during the CBC livestream of the B.C. election debate featured strikingly similar rhetoric to official party platforms, says political scientist.

User comments during live debate featured similar rhetoric to party platforms, says political scientist

Livestreaming debates online means viewers can be subject to volunteer or even paid influencers, according to a Victoria political scientist.

Political debates have made the leap from the living room TV to laptops and smart phones, creating an opportunity for the supporters of political parties to influence potential voters directly through social media.

Tens of thousands of viewers tuned in to watch the CBC Facebook Live of the B.C.'s leaders' debate. The broadcast was accompanied by a comment section rife with opinions, attacks, emotions — and a number of posts containing rhetoric that was curiously similar to the official platforms of the political parties.

According to David Black, a political scientist at Royal Roads University in Victoria, it's likely political parties are leveraging these keyboard warriors to sway voters.

"[Those commentors] are either people who are willing volunteers or paid to repeat or iterate a message given to them by the party," he said. "Or as we also know, they can be bots."

The tactic isn't entirely new. In fact, reports find it had an effect in the 2016 presidential election. But Black says enlisting influencers treads on unethical grounds and can have damning effects on liberal democracy.

Online shills

Black says political parties have long had a hand in enlisting their supporters to spread their words verbatim.

"This goes back decades, in terms of form letters that would be issued to supporters [with the purpose of] writing their MLA or MP about particular issues," he said.

Liberal Leader Christy Clark, Green Leader Andrew Weaver and NDP Leader John Horgan shake hands before the leaders' debate on Wednesday. (BC Broadcast Consortium)

"But it's one thing to receive a letter that looks kind of obviously fabricated and scripted — and it's another thing to be in the intimate space that is social media, pushing a message to people who might be more credulous."

Black says the consequences of enlisting online influencers, or shills, can deplete trust in the parties and the overall democratic system.

"The more these shills are used, and the more people become aware that the person they're receiving enthusiastic opinions from might be the paid agent of a party, the more the whole system suffers," he said.

Post-truth

"What worries me, is that at the end of this, we get into post-truth conditions — a politics where people just don't believe what they hear and don't trust who's talking to them anymore," he said.

But given trends in political campaigns in western democracy — campaigns that lean heavily on the use of social media — Black fears that we're moving towards the point of no return.

"Whether it's automated bots or whether it's live human beings, they will get better at this. The stakes are high, and power is very enticing."

With files from CBC's On the Coast