Social media users voiced fears about election manipulation during 2019 campaign, says Elections Canada

Internal, social media monitoring reports released by Elections Canada to CBC News, shows the agency was dogged by concerns that non-Canadian citizens may illegally cast ballots. There were calls to investigate suspected cases of foreign influence. And Elections Canada's own paid partnership with social media companies came under fire over privacy concerns. 

Social media users expressed fears about non-citizens voting, foreign manipulation

One of the common concerns Elections Canada detected on social media during the election campaign had to do with the possibility of non-citizens casting ballots. (CBC News)

An internal Elections Canada document shows the agency's social media tracking during the 2019 federal election spotted multiple messages questioning the legitimacy of Canada's elections — claims that non-Canadian citizens might be voting illegally, that foreign elements were influencing the vote and that the voting system itself was "rigged."

During the 2019 election, and for the first time ever, Elections Canada monitored public online chatter to combat disinformation campaigns. The monitoring team was assembled in response to claims of foreign interference in the U.S. presidential election and the U.K.'s Brexit referendum.

The document, released by Elections Canada, suggests that at least some Canadians had profound doubts about the system's integrity.

One social media posting described elections as "a 'gong show' on par with 'North Korea and Russia," according to an Elections Canada social media monitoring report dated Oct. 24.

"Others asserted that [Elections Canada] should be 'monitored' by an independent audit firm since [the 2019 general election] included 'a lot of things that do not pass the sniff test.' Another user claimed that EC is 'compromised.'"

Elections Canada said it's an independent, non-partisan agency with a series of safeguards in place to ensure its integrity and detect voter fraud. An independent audit is also conducted after every election.The agency said it's reviewing the social media monitoring initiative to determine what the agency will do with it in the future. Elections Canada said the monitoring effort gave it insight into voters' concerns and the spread of election misinformation online, allowing it to release accurate facts during the campaign.

Daily social media monitoring reports were sent out to various Elections Canada staffers throughout the election. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Between August and the end of October, 2019, a team of 20 people at Elections Canada searched publicly available posts on popular platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, 4chan and Tumblr. The agency used key words to search for false messaging about where, when and how Canadians could vote.

The group came across posts sharing inaccurate information about the voting process, including posts citing the wrong date for the election. The team also warned social media platforms about 28 instances of inaccurate information shared online and social media accounts impersonating Elections Canada.

After the election, the agency also sent letters to various digital platforms saying they needed to do more to protect the public.

"In those letters, Elections Canada also noted that there is still work to be done regarding the collection and treatment of user data collection and the spread of inaccurate information on digital platforms," agency spokesperson Sonia Molinski told CBC News.

The team's daily findings were sent out to different departments within Elections Canada and the Commissioner of Canada Elections' office. Elections Canada is now working on post-election reports that will include information on the major online trends the agency detected. The team captured hundreds of social media comments on dozens of different topics throughout the election. 

CBC News sifted through the 700-page-plus document containing all the daily reports and pulled out three key issues that lit up social media during the campaign.

Worries about non-citizens voting

One of the most common concerns Election Canada spotted on social media was the fear that non-citizens might cast ballots illegally.

In the spring, Elections Canada reported it was removing 103,000 individuals from the federal voters' registry because they were not Canadian citizens. That sparked news stories and a heated online debate about whether voters should be compelled to show proof of citizenship at the polls.

Under the Canada Elections Act, it's illegal for a non-citizen to vote knowing they are not eligible. Some on social media said the system shouldn't rely on trust and called for stricter voting rules, such as a requirement to show a passport before casting a ballot.

"I think this election is rigged, just like the last one was," wrote one person on Facebook, according to the agency's report on Oct 11. "How many illegal ballots were cast? Why they don't insist on [people] carrying a passport or at least their citizenship papers?"

Another person claimed to have voted with a library card and voter information card while wearing a scarf and sunglasses to show how "ridiculous" they felt the ID requirements are.

"It works! Ridiculous! Anyone could vote in my place ... Why do we have photo ID and not required to use it in our country's MOST important event?"

A news story about a permanent resident who had mistakenly received a voter information card in the mail set off another round of hysteria online. Some people online found it "deplorable," according to an Oct. 18 report.

Elections Canada said it's conducting a thorough review of any potential election violations — cross-referencing data it collected during the election with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's lists of permanent residents and foreign nationals. It plans to verify that information by opening thousands of bags of election documents in ridings across the country to filter out any data capture errors.

"Based on its initial assessment, Elections Canada has no evidence to suggest that the outcomes in any ridings would have been affected by instances of non-citizens voting in the 2019 federal election," said Molinski.

Foreign interference

Elections Canada also spent time responding to calls for the agency to investigate alleged cases of foreign interference.

Those calls ramped up after bombshell images and footage of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau wearing brownface and blackface surfaced in mid-September.

Some people on social media were troubled by the release of photos of Justin Trudeau in brownface by a "foreign controlled media outlet."

"Some users found it 'suspicious' that the photo resurfaced in the middle of an election period and labelled it 'foreign interference,'" says an Elections Canada report dated Sept. 19. "One user claimed that the photo was released by 'foreign powers' that want to 'hijack the Canadian election.'"

The next month, outrage erupted online after former U.S. president Barack Obama went on Twitter and asked his "neighbors to the north" to elect Trudeau to another term.

"Some users speculated that Obama received money in exchange for that endorsement," said the agency's report dated Oct. 16.  "Another set of users speculated what [Elections Canada's] and the public's reaction would be if U.S. President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to endorse a candidate in [the election]; many speculated that there 'would be no end to the outrage.'"

Others took aim at Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg after the 17-year-old visited climate rallies in Edmonton and Vancouver in October.

"One user asked what [Elections Canada] was 'doing about all this obvious interference' and a second user wondered if it was possible to 'get an injunction' to keep Thunberg 'out of the country' due to the impending election," said the agency's report.

Social media users attacked climate activist Greta Thunberg, accusing her of "meddling" in Canada's election by attending climate marches in Canada. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Elections Canada ended up explaining to some social media users that election law permits people outside of the country to express opinions on topics related to Canada's election.

The commissioner of Canada Elections would be the one to investigate but doesn't consider social media a channel for filing or responding to complaints, according to his office. 

Privacy concerns

Elections Canada also faced criticism over its collaborations with social media platforms. The agency rolled out a series of short videos in September and October on Facebook and Snapchat explaining voter information cards, how to register and how to vote. One social media user called it a "deliberate attempt to undermine" Canadian democracy, according to the Elections Canada report from Sept. 25.

One women's rights advocate criticized the campaign on Twitter, saying that something felt "off" about the campaign and accusing Elections Canada of using Facebook and Twitter ads to spread "misinformation."

The advocate "said she's not on the voter registry because she's a victim of stalking and felt it was 'bad for democracy' for Elections Canada to frame voter registration as something voters 'need to do' in order to vote," says the Sept. 22 Elections Canada report. "Her main concern was with voters, who for privacy reasons, wish not to be on the national list of electors."

Another person noted online that a cartoon character shown in the agency's Snapchat collaboration was wearing a red shirt: "Just saying! No influence here." Others speculated that the Facebook campaign was a data mining operation. 

Elections Canada said it assured social media users that it does not share voter information with any social media platforms.

The agency said its Facebook campaign led to more than 988,222 visits to the online registration service and 474,495 registry confirmations, additions and updates.

Elections Canada said it will release the overall cost of its social media monitoring team when it reports on the cost of the election in the coming weeks.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She earned the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct against senior military leaders. Her beats include transport, defence and federal government accountability. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

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