Fake news. Twitter trolls. Robocalls. Here's what to expect in the Alberta election

A provincial election is coming this spring and political parties are throwing everything they've got into all forms of advertising campaigns. Here's what to expect. Brace yourself.

With Alberta on the cusp of an election, the campaign machines are already rolling

(Illustration by Wil Wang / CBC File photos)

When Kyle Hamilton got a phone call asking him to support a UCP candidate in the upcoming provincial election, he asked about the candidate's platform. When the caller didn't answer his question, he got suspicious.

Hamilton: Can you do me a favour and say, 'Carrot?'
Caller: Uh, no problem ... I just wanted to take a second and ask if you'd vote for Marjorie Newman and the UCP in the upcoming election.
Hamilton: So you're actually a recording?
Caller: Haha. Oh goodness, do I sound that bad?
Hamilton: Kind of.

Hamilton was annoyed that he was having a conversation with a robot — or at least a series of pre-recorded responses being pushed by an operator.

"I'm really irritated by it," said Hamilton, a 28-year-old Edmontonian who is volunteering for the NDP in this campaign.

"It disregards everything I would say other than, 'Yes, I will vote for you,' or 'Yes, I will donate to you.'"

The 2019 provincial election hasn't been called, but parties are already in full campaign mode. If you haven't received a phone call from a human/robot, you have likely been spammed with a political text message, seen party videos on your Facebook feed or watched old-fashioned campaign ads on television.

And it's just going to get more intense. Here's what you need to know about the messages and messengers in the 2019 campaign.

You used to call me on my cellphone

Despite the National Do Not Call List, it's not unusual to get calls soliciting political support. And they're completely above-board.

The do-not-call list exempts registered charities, people pushing newspaper subscriptions and political parties.

In 2019, it's become even more common for parties to reach you by text.
Is the woman who sent this text message really named 'Kate'? We wonder. (James Evans/CBC)

But the effectiveness of such strategies is often questioned.

Najib Jutt, a political strategist with the government relations firm Statecraft Partners, said text messages may be better than phone calls because they're less intrusive and people can deal with the text whenever they want.

But at the end of the day, any campaign that simply blasts information at voters is not very useful, he said.

"You're not convincing people to continue the conversation with their circles, which is really what needs to be done in political campaigning," Jutt said.

"People are looking for better engagement …To me, whatever way a candidate or party can really engage with potential voters is where the best spend of money is."

Telephone town-halls and old-fashioned door-knocking allow voters to ask questions and get answers from real people. But Jutt knows that's sometimes seen as an outdated approach. At this point, most parties really just want data.

New advertisers on the block

This will be the first election cycle where third-party advertisers may have a real impact. Also known as Political Action Committees (PACs), many people are most familiar with these groups in relation to U.S. politics, where they're known for pumping huge amounts of money into elections with no financial restrictions imposed.

A PAC in Alberta is any group that plans to spend at least $1,000 on political advertising. The groups have long existed here — but it was only after an NDP bill put an end to corporate and union political donations that PACs became more important in Alberta politics.

The "big money" aspect of these groups applies in Alberta, too, with some of these groups raising more than $1 million per year.

Shaping Alberta's Future advertised for UCP Leader Jason Kenney last fall. (Dave Cournoyer/Twitter)

"Third-parties do have to identify who they are but they don't have to identify who they're supporting, even though the ads would be pretty clear in that respect," said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Last fall, the group Shaping Alberta's Future ran a series of radio advertisements that sounded like a radio call-in show, with callers telling a "host" that they "gotta scrap the carbon tax" and that they need a leader who "will stand up for Alberta."

In November, the group also purchased a wrap-around advertisement that appeared as the front page of the Edmonton Journal. 

The website for Shaping Alberta's Future clearly states the group supports conservative politics and UCP Leader Jason Kenney. But the PAC's ties to the Motor Dealers' Association of Alberta have raised controversy and the NDP has asked the province's elections commissioner to investigate its operations.

All donations to third-party advertisers are listed on their financial disclosure forms, which are published on elections.alberta.ca

Meanwhile, groups such as the Alberta Teachers' Association, which will not support a particular political party but will run ads on election issues, are also listed as third-party advertisers. The ATA raised about $270,000 between December and February.

We love to hate

Despite calls from political parties to keep the campaign civil, there's ample evidence that negative ads will play a role.

"Research has shown that negative ads work and that's why they continue to be used," Bratt said.

The NDP has published an aggressive website called "The Truth About Jason Kenney," with ominous black, white and red imagery and direct attacks on the UCP leader's political history.

The NDP's new website isn't exactly subtle in its criticisms of Jason Kenney. (thetruthaboutjasonkenney.ca)

Bratt also warned the election is likely to see the rise of anonymous Twitter accounts — which operate in a medium where direct attacks on political opponents are an almost natural part of the discourse.

The Unite Alberta account on Twitter started as a pro-Jason Kenney account before the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose voted to come together. The account was known for aggressive comments and it was unclear who was writing the tweets.

The account has since shifted and is now identified as the official account of Jason Kenney's office. It more recently courted controversy by publishing a list of people it said were NDP staff, trying to highlight partisan tweets from government staff during their work hours.

Jutt, the political strategist, doesn't think attack ads are as effective as some parties might hope.

"I think there's a better way. I think there's a way to convince people that your approach, that your way is just better," he said. "People are informed … let me decide because you do such a great job engaging and you're so good with your messaging, it doesn't matter what the other guys say."

Fake news is a real thing

There's no shortage of political coverage on the Internet. So with mainstream media outlets, and well-established blogs, meme generators and Facebook posters, it's likely even the most discerning reader can be duped by something that's completely fabricated.

But Jane Lytvynenko, a BuzzFeed breaking news reporter and writer of a weekly Fake News Quiz, says readers who genuinely want to learn about events need to be even more careful about stories that have some elements of truth — and many more elements of slant and opinion.

Jane Lytvynenko writes a weekly quiz to test people on their ability to detect fake news stories. (BuzzFeed)

"Look for headline and image combinations designed to spark anger," Lytvynenko said. "Is the image of a politician that's attached to the story have their face distorted in almost a caricature kind of way? Is the headline giving me just enough information to be angry?

"As you read the story, is there any original reporting in there? Did the public actually speak to the parties involved that they're promoting, or is it more of an overview with an opinion slant?"

All that advice, however, will only be useful to people who want to think critically about the media they're consuming.

"For readers, it's the best we can do is ask for vigilance. Vigilance on sources and vigilance on where they get the information that they vote based on."


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