'More needs to be done,' Gould says after some online election meddling detected

The government has to step up its fight against online disinformation in the wake of the federal election, says Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould. Gould's comments come as government officials say attempts at misinformation or disinformation were detected but not enough to sound the alarm.

There were attempts to spread misinformation or disinformation, officials confirm

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould wants the government to do more to reduce online misinformation or disinformation during election campaigns. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The government has to step up its fight against online disinformation in the wake of the federal election, says Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.

"Going forward, there is still a sense that more needs to be done to address the spread of disinformation on social media platforms," Gould said in a statement to CBC News.

The amount of misinformation and disinformation that circulated during the election will factor into the government's deliberations about what worked and what needs to be improved before the next election, she added.

"We will review, reflect and assess those measures in the coming months. At this stage, it is too early to speak publicly about what those could be."

Gould's comments come as officials tell CBC News that the federal government did detect attempted misinformation or disinformation during the election campaign — just not at a high enough level to compromise the election and for a panel of top bureaucrats to alert the public.

"Yes, there have been some activities observed, none of which met the threshold as identified by the panel," said Stéphane Shank, manager of media relations for the Privy Council Office. "Therefore, no public communications."

However, Shank refused to provide any detail of what people monitoring the election saw, saying only that they were monitoring for both domestic and foreign interference.

Misinformation is information that is false, while disinformation consists of circulating false information with an intent to deceive or disrupt.

Donara Barojan is head of operations for Astroscreen, which monitored part of the Canadian election. (LinkedIn)

Shank's comment marks the first confirmation by the government that it did indeed see attempts to meddle in Canada's election.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and allegations of foreign interference in recent elections around the world, the federal government put measures in place earlier this year to monitor any attempts at interference in Canada's vote. If significant interference risked affecting the integrity of the election, a special "critical election incident public protocol" panel, composed largely of high level bureaucrats, was charged with alerting the public.

But Shank said it never reached that level.

"The panel made some observations but did not observe a level of activity that would warrant a public announcement or meet the threshold that would then take the next step to make a public announcement on whether Canada's ability to have a free and fair election was compromised."

Shank said the panel will assess how the election protocol worked in addressing any threats. They will prepare a classified report for the prime minister and for the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, including recommendations on whether the protocol should be a permanent part of future elections.

An unclassified public version of the report is expected in spring 2020.

Meanwhile, the government departments charged with checking for attempted interference will continue monitoring, he said.

Among the sources of misinformation Astroscreen found being spread online was the Buffalo Chronicle. (Screengrab/The Buffalo Chronicle)

Others also monitoring election

The federal government wasn't the only one monitoring the election for attempts at online meddling. Astroscreen, a U.K-based company that specializes in detecting astroturfing and inauthentic behaviour, found some low level activity but no apparent widespread attempt at foreign interference during the several days that it monitored near the end of the campaign.

"Between 19 and 21 October 2019, out of 272,964 #elxn43 and #cdnpoli hashtag mentions, 4,433 were made by 1,669 low-credibility Twitter accounts," Astroscreen's report found.

Much of the questionable activity Astroscreen saw centred on information published on the website of the Buffalo Chronicle', a U.S-based website that published several stories during the election campaign regarding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that have been debunked.

While the stories were debunked, three articles between Oct. 7 and 19 alleging sex scandals involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attracted an average of 2,900 shares per article, most of it from real Twitter users, Astroscreen researchers Will Roberts and Aiste Pagirenaite found.

Facebook also played a significant role in spreading the stories. The three articles got more than 100,000 interactions on Facebook and were shared across 181 unique Facebook groups and pages.

In analyzing the articles, Astroscreen also discovered five Facebook pages created between 2012 and 2017 and managed in Canada "that appeared to have been working in co-ordination to spread anti-Liberal posts, memes and articles."

"Astroscreen's analysis of the pages revealed that they often shared the same content within minutes of one another. This co-ordinated activity dates back to at least the beginning of October."

Another article, alleging the RCMP intended to charge Trudeau with obstruction of justice in relation to the SNC-Lavalin affair was shared 950 times on Twitter — 145 of them from a single anonymous account, @Jerry60172386, which has since been suspended by Twitter.

Facebook Canada's global director and head of public policy Kevin Chan says he is 'cautiously optimistic' that Facebook wasn't used for foreign interference in the Canadian election. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

"Even though there was some inauthentic activity that we identified, most of it related to anti-Trudeau sentiments.… In general there wasn't that much inauthentic activity," said Donara Barojan, head of operations for Astroscreen. "We didn't see a major network of inauthentic accounts trying to [interfere] with the outcome of the election."

Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the steps it took to prevent its platform from being used to interfere in the election worked.

He said Facebook did see some signs of attempts at voter suppression, such as posts suggesting supporters of different parties were supposed to vote on different days.

"For us, it's very hard to know if they were joking or it was a satire or was it something nefarious," Chan said. "We do have a voter suppression policy in our community standards, so we were proactively looking for these things and removing them when we did find them."

Chan said Facebook didn't see signs of foreign election interference.

He said some of the steps Facebook took in the lead-up to the federal election to meet new Canadian election rules, such as setting up an authorization process for political advertisers, could be used for elections in other countries.

Meanwhile, Facebook will continue to monitor for foreign interference in Canadian politics.

"We continue to look for these things."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca


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.


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