New Brunswick election could set a trend for media manipulation: professor
Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick all have provincial elections in less than 6 months
New Brunswick's election in September will be one of the country's first since revelations that Cambridge Analytica harvested the private information of millions of Facebook users, and one expert says he'll be watching closely for signs of media manipulation.
"I'm curious to see how these same type of concerns and issues are certainly going to be part of every election in the future," said Fenwick McKelvey, an assistant professor at Concordia University who researches the workings of online social media platforms.
"It will be interesting to see how much this has an effect on the provincial level."
In early March, it was discovered a researcher had collected the information of 50 million Facebook users through an online personality quiz.
The researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, then shared that user information with Cambridge Analytica which, in turn, used it to create psychological profiles that would help its politically motivated clients target voters.
One of the English company's clients was the campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The app for the personality quiz gave the political consulting firm access to the profiles of not just the people who took the quiz but to their friends' profiles as well, creating a gold mine of information used for analysis and manipulation of voters.
Media manipulation hot topic
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has now appeared before U.S. House and Senate panels to answer questions about information contained on the social media site, access to it and whether social media platforms need government regulations to prevent further breaches.
"I think everyone's kind of on alert about what is happening in elections and the state of elections," McKelvey said.
But the Saint John native said media manipulation is often simpler than the system implemented by Cambridge Analytica and any interference in the New Brunswick election would use basic tools.
Media manipulation is broad, encompassing everything from automated "bots" set up on platforms to boost or stifle certain political views, to the political leanings of the media New Brunswickers consume and how they convey information.
No one from Elections New Brunswick was available for comment Thursday.
But McKelvey said the province has some issues ripe for abuse and as campaigns increasingly move online, the climate may deteriorate.
"We've always had language divides," he said. "We also have some really clear issues with Indigenous issues. … That can be kind of a powder keg."
When people try to affect elections, he said, they don't try to create new divides. They try to isolate and amplify those that already exist.
Has happened before
Likewise, Canadian elections are no stranger to manipulation, he said, and there's evidence of bad actors affecting both the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leadership election and Nova Scotia's past elections.
McKelvey said it's more the political climate right now than any new strategies or technologies that will lead to an increased interest in the issue from politicians, academics and others from across the country.
Preview to federal election
Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick all have provincial elections in the next six months.
And with the federal election expected before Oct. 19, 2019, these three provincial elections could act as test runs for what may happen on a larger scale.
"A few good cases where the elections run great is a positive story," said Fenwick. "But I think that's the moment we're in right now.
"There's a lot of concern about the federal election 2019 … [and it] should make New Brunswickers aware this is an important election and an important one to follow."