Ontario parties still running Facebook ads during election day blackout

Three of Ontario’s four largest provincial political parties are microtargeting Ontario voters with Facebook ads on election day, despite the advertising blackout period provided for in Ontario’s election laws, CBC News has learned.

Andrea Horwath's NDP running ads attacking Ford, insists it's operating within the law

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford (left) and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath participate during the third and final televised debate of the provincial election campaign in Toronto, Sunday, May 27, 2018. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Three of Ontario's four largest provincial political parties are microtargeting Ontario voters with Facebook ads on election day, CBC News has learned.

However, there are conflicting opinions about whether those running the ads are violating Ontario's elections law, which imposes a blackout period for advertising on election day.

The Conservatives say they have suspended their advertising on Facebook because they want to obey the law. The NDP, however, is running 16 different ads — most of which directly attack Conservative Leader Doug Ford — and insists it also is complying with the law.

Andrea Horwath's NDP is running 16 different online ads, most of which directly attack Conservative Leader Doug Ford. (CBC)

Karla Webber-Gallagher, executive director of Ontario's NDP, points to an interpretation bulletin issued by Elections Ontario's compliance division on June 4 which says the blackout period does not apply to "political advertisement on the internet, such as on social media, or in a similar electronic medium, if posted before and not altered during a blackout period."

But Elections Ontario, responding to questions from CBC News, had a somewhat different answer.

"Online ads (on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Youtube) that have been posted prior to the blackout period can stay posted as long as it is not altered and not further distributed during the blackout period," said Cara Des Granges, spokesperson for Elections Ontario. "Further distributed would include paid/sponsored 'boosts'."

When advertisers buy an ad or "sponsored post" on Facebook, the social media platform pushes the ad out into the feeds of Facebook users the advertiser is trying to target — that's the 'boost' Des Granges mentioned.

CBC News identified the party ads using a combination of a Facebook ad collector developed by ProPublica — a U.S.-based investigative journalism organization — and Facebook's new ad viewer, a pilot project it has rolled out in Canada in a bid to increase transparency.

A Facebook official said that if ads are showing in the ad viewer, it means that they are live and currently being pushed out to Facebook users. Among the options available to advertisers is to specify which days their ads will run.

A number of registered third parties, which had been advertising extensively on Facebook, do not appear to be running ads on election day.

The confusion over the ads points to a potential grey zone in Ontario's elections laws as legislators, authorities and political parties try to keep pace with changes in technology and social media.

Facebook says it is not actively monitoring whether parties, candidates or groups run ads during the blackout period.

Under Ontario's elections law, online ads that are posted before the blackout period begins, such as ads on a website, are allowed to remain. Parties and candidates can also post to their social media accounts on election day.

Traditional paid advertising is subject to the blackout period which begins the day before the vote.

The NDP ads attack Ford on several fronts, warning he will wreck Ontario's health care system and questioning whether voters can trust him given the dispute with his own family over his late brother Rob Ford's estate.

In this Ontario Green Party ad, the party touts its election promise to lower payroll taxes on small businesses. (CBC)

The Green Party of Ontario is running eight ads, most of which trumpet various aspects of its campaign platform, such as new funding for public transport and requiring new housing developments to include affordable housing.

Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals are running three ads. While two of them simply urge people to get out and vote, the third one — in French — criticizes Horwath for saying she wasn't planning to learn French should she become premier.

In this French language ad from Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, the party criticizes NDP Leader Andrea Horwath for saying she wasn't planning to learn French in the event she becomes premier. (CBC)

Webber-Gallagher said the rules surrounding Facebook ads in blackout periods have been debated for a while.

"It is certainly something that we have had lengthy discussions with Elections Ontario over the years, including in previous by-elections, and that is the directive that we have received from them."

Drew Davidson, spokeswoman for the Liberals, gave a similar answer.

"All paid is off-air in traditional mediums, in accordance with the rules. Any digital advertisements that are in place before the blackout are allowed to stay as long as the creative does not change. The same is true for things like outdoor billboards."

However, Ford spokesperson Melissa Lantsman said running ads on election day contravenes the rules.

"There is an advertising blackout and our party plays by the rules. We're focused on getting our supporters to vote today to bring the change to the people of Ontario after 15 years of Liberal mismanagement and scandal and against a radical NDP who will be ten times worse." 

Political parties aren't the only ones running Facebook election ads on voting day.

CBC News also identified a number of candidates who are targeting voters with ads today, including: Bob Gordanier, Liberal candidate in the riding of Dufferin-Caledon; Vic Fedeli, Conservative candidate for Nipissing; and Troy Crowder, Conservative candidate in Sudbury.

​Readers and viewers can help CBC monitor ads microtargeting Canadians on Facebook by downloading ProPublica's Facebook ad collector browser extension.

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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