Disinformation, foreign interference threatening Canada's electoral system, elections watchdog warns

Disinformation and foreign interference are two of the biggest threats facing Canada's electoral system and it will take everyone working together to counter them, says Yves Côté, Canada's chief election watchdog.

Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté spoke with CBC News to mark end of his 10-year term

A man with a grey beard wearing a suit and glasses speaks in an office setting.
Yves Côté, speaking in an interview with CBC News to mark the end of his 10-year term as Commissioner of Canada Elections, discussed the threat of online disinformation and foreign interference in Canadian elections. (CBC )

Disinformation and foreign interference are two of the biggest threats facing Canada's electoral system and it will take everyone working together to counter them, says Canada's chief election watchdog.

Speaking in an interview with CBC News to mark the end of his 10-year term as Commissioner of Canada Elections, Yves Côté said online disinformation is one of the biggest challenges he's had to face and noted that it can be difficult to be optimistic about the future. 

"I think there are all kinds of challenges that are lurking and some of them are becoming perhaps worse as we move on with time," Côté said. 

However, he noted there is a solution if various groups can work together.

"Nobody should just get discouraged and abandon the fight or abandon the project," he said.

"I think many people have to contribute and I think that it's a job of politicians of all stripes, of institutions, of media, of academics. It's all kinds of people that have to pull together and say this is a danger."

WATCH | Yves Côté on complex challenge of disinformation and foreign interference:

Disinformation and foreign interference are key election challenges, commissioner says

1 year ago
Duration 2:18
Outgoing Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté talks about key challenges facing Canada's electoral system.

Disinformation against electoral system troubling

Côté said he is particularly troubled by disinformation attacks against the Canadian electoral system.

"When people are trying to convince others that the way in which votes or ballots are counted does not work," Côté said.

"When they try to misinform people about where they can vote, how they can vote or where, they try to raise issues with the professionalism or the competency of, for example, Elections Canada or our own office for reasons that have no foundation to them, I find that very, very troublesome."

Côté said he has negotiated agreements with companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook that help to streamline the process of obtaining information when his office has to investigate a complaint, but he said he does not have agreements with other "foreign agencies" like Tencent, the company that owns the popular Chinese-language app WeChat. 

Côté's departure at the end of this month comes amid these new technological challenges that likely couldn't have been imagined 10 years ago when headlines were dominated by the robocall voter suppression scandal during the 2011 election, when voters in several ridings received automated telephone calls with recorded messages directing them to the wrong place to vote.

His successor, Caroline Simard, begins Aug. 15.

Foreign interference 'difficult to investigate'

In addition to the challenges posed by disinformation, Côté said Simard will have to contend with the threat of foreign interference in elections.

"For us as an enforcement agency it poses all kinds of challenges, especially if those foreign countries do not have good working diplomatic relationships with us," Côté explained.

"It's very difficult to investigate, very difficult to get the evidence that you might need to build a case, and then, of course, it's very difficult to bring these people before Canadian courts, assuming that you were able to gather the evidence you needed to do so."

In a recent interview with CBC Radio's The House, former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole revealed that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) informed his party during the last election of attempts on WeChat to influence the race in a number of ridings with false information. 

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Côté said his office has relationships with CSIS, the Canadian security establishment, the RCMP and various police forces.

"Certainly, we've heard of the fact that there have been campaigns like this or allegations that there have been campaigns like this and this is a topic that we are greatly interested in," said Côté.

In addition to the attempts that Canada Elections is aware of and can decipher, he said there are also things happening under the radar that they don't know about. 

"There are the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. So that's a very complex thing where we have a role to play." 

Safeguarding voter privacy 

Another challenge is safeguarding the privacy of voters.

Currently, federal political parties are exempt from federal privacy legislation. Côté said he received several complaints about political parties misusing voters' private information.

"Given the framework that currently exists, there was nothing really we could do because the act is so open and so generous or so not restrictive enough in terms of what political parties are doing."

Côté pointed to new legislation in Quebec that will subject parties and candidates to privacy rules, something he hopes to see the federal government adopt. He said he also supports a recommendation made by Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault to restrict hate groups from forming recognized political parties.

Some voters have said in the past that they didn't want to be listed on the electoral roll out of concern that their information could be accessed by individuals or groups who promote hate.

In the end, Côté feels his term has been a successful one, increasing the independence of the Commissioner of Canada Elections office and obtaining changes, like the introduction of administrative monetary penalties as an alternative to prosecution for some elections law violations.

"We have a good team and we certainly have a commissioner, an incoming commissioner, that is highly competent and highly qualified to take over from me and take the office to higher and better places."


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.