Skepticism needed as parties, third-party advertisers court votes online, experts say

Like many people, Kathleen Mahamed stays informed through news websites and social media. She tries to be discerning, choosing credible and independent sources, especially on political issues.

Successful political advertising 'seeps into your psyche without you knowing it,' political scientist says

Kathleen Mahamed says she inherently trusted the Albertans featured in an anti-Jason Kenney video advertisement produced by the NDP, but admits she should probably do some more research on the issues they raised. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Like many people, Kathleen Mahamed stays informed through news websites and social media. She tries to be discerning, choosing credible and independent sources, especially on political issues.

Still, the university student was conflicted when she learned a slick YouTube video filled with soundbites from Albertans suggesting a government led by UCP Leader Jason Kenney would target abortion rights and privatize health care had been produced by the NDP.

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"When I see people who look like they are very trustworthy, it seems like a real message being sent across," Mahamed said after watching the video.

To her, the advertisement felt like "something you should be listening to. But you should do more research about it."

As election day approaches, the public's ability to sift fact from political fiction will be tested as parties and special-interest groups use online media to influence who Albertans vote for and the election issues they prioritize.

These messages, which can take the form of videos and memes, are often shared without context and sometimes targeted at specific audiences, said Anatoliy Grudz of Ryerson University's Social Media Lab.

Grudz said while the source of, and motives behind, some political content is clear, it can be problematic when the answer isn't so obvious.

"For a person to really understand where the message is coming from, they really have to spend a lot of time (researching)," he said. "And unfortunately, most don't have time to investigate who is behind a particular message."

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The increasing presence of another political actor can make that work more challenging. Third-party advertisers, also known as political action committees (PACS), aren't directly affiliated with political parties or candidates, but often produce content that seeks to sway votes in a particular direction.

Alberta law limits how much money third-party advertisers can spend prior to, and during, an election. But there is no cap on the money they can raise.

Increased interest in online advertising

University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley said recent legislation that further restricted donations to political parties has increased the significance of third-party advertisers.

"Political action committees become one of the few vehicles left for people that want to spend over what they could just going through the mainstream political parties," Wesley said.

Political scientist Jared Wesley says the public must always consider the source of online political messaging. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"So we have seen a bit of an increased interest, an increased activity among PACs, in particular in terms of online advertising."

There are familiar names behind some of those organizations.

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Shaping Alberta's Future plans to be the biggest third-party election advertiser and has declared $298,000 to Elections Alberta, just $2,000 shy of the legislated cap. It's clearly stated mandate is to promote low taxes and free markets, and ensure Albertans elect a UCP government led by Kenney.

According to Elections Alberta, the primary contact for Shaping Alberta's Future is Douglas Nelson, the chief financial officer for Kenney's campaign during the 2017 UCP leadership race.

Shaping Alberta’s Future is a third-party advertiser that wants to ensure Jason Kenney is Alberta’s next premier. According to Elections Alberta, its primary contact is Douglas Nelson, the chief financial officer for Kenney’s 2017 UCP leadership campaign. (Twitter)

On the other side of the political spectrum is Project Alberta, a union-funded PAC that intends to spend $135,000 this election advertising period. Its spokesperson, labour lawyer Mark Wells, previously worked for the NDP caucus and was later managing director of the government's public affairs bureau under the NDP.

Some third-party advertisers, like the Alberta Teachers' Association, say they are issues-based and don't back a specific political party. But Wesley said the prevalence of those that do is telling.

"It shows it is very difficult, and a lot of observers would say unnecessary, to completely outlaw this kind of activity by third parties," he said, adding there is a need to ensure "there is an open forum for folks that are not connected with political parties to voice their views."

Consider the source, political scientist says

How effective these organizations will be at pushing their messages is still unclear.

"The most successful advertising is stuff that seeps into your psyche without you knowing it," Wesley said. "You seem to like a particular person or a political party because of messages that weren't as overt, like a slogan or a jingle, but actually seeped into your consciousness.

"So measuring how well PACs are doing at framing the debate, or at framing particular parties or leaders, is very difficult to do."

Wesley said the public ultimately must remain skeptical about the content circulating online — from political parties, third-party advertisers, and others — in the lead-up to the election.

"We need to start putting some of this (responsibility) on citizens, to be able to discern what is a reliable source of information, versus something that is trying to influence me or manipulate reality in order to get me to think in a particular way," he said.

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian, Terry Reith, Jennie Russell