Facebook introducing measures to prevent election disruption

Facebook will unveil a series of measures later today in a bid to prevent its platform being used to disrupt the next federal election and to conform with changes to Canada's election law, CBC News has learned.

However, company won't reveal how parties and candidates are microtargeting voters

Later today, Facebook will unveil its plans to prevent foreign interference in the next Canadian election. (The Associated Press/ Matt Rourke)

Facebook will unveil a series of measures later today in a bid to prevent its platform being used to disrupt the next federal election and to conform with changes to Canada's election law.

The company is currently building an archive of Canadian political advertising that will allow members of the public to view ads that are being placed by candidates, political parties and by groups wading in on issues being debated during the campaign. The archive, which will be similar to ones the company has already set up in countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. and searchable for seven years, will include copies of ads, how much was spent and general demographic data about who the ad reached such as average ages, gender and location.

Changes to Canada's elections law contained in Bill C-76 require companies that sell online ads to set up a registry of political ads. Companies are also prohibited from accepting election ads from outside Canada.

However, Facebook is stopping short of including the microtargeting information for ads, such as the kinds of people the advertiser is trying to reach. Advertisers can ask Facebook to microtarget ads at people in various ways such as people who fit a certain profile, who like particular things or who live in a particular area.

During the Ontario provincial election, CBC News was able to observe microtargeting information as a result of a partnership with the U.S.-based investigative news organization ProPublica, which developed a Facebook ad collector. Facebook has since made changes to make it difficult for ProPublica and other sites to access that microtargeting information.

Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada, said the company is currently building its Ad Library and wants it to be available by late June, ahead of the election in October.

Chan said the company is serious about trying to prevent foreign interference and about respecting recent changes to Canada's elections law.

"At Facebook we all want, I think, the same thing as everybody else and that is we all want free and fair elections. And so at Facebook, that means that we want to do the right thing to help contribute to that kind of outcome."

Facebook's decision to introduce a series of measures to comply with changes to Canada's election law is in sharp contrast with Google's response to the changes in Canada's election laws. Google said it won't accept any political advertising during the election campaign because it would be too difficult to comply with the law.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould has described the decision as "disappointing" and said she would try to convince Google to change its mind.

Kevin Chan, the head of public policy for Facebook in Canada, says the fight against bad actors trying to use the platform is a constant work in process. (CBC)

In order to monitor that, Facebook plans to institute an authorization process for anyone who wants to run political ads during the period covered by the elections law. Advertisers will have to disclose who paid for an ad according to the provisions in C-76.

The person or group placing the ad has to provide the information to be included in the ad library. Facebook will try to proactively identify political ads and block those being run by groups outside the country who aren't authorized, said Chan.

To help determine which political issues should be included in Facebook's political ad reporting system, the company has recruited five advisers: former NDP MP Megan Leslie; Antonia Maioni who is dean of arts at McGill University; David Zussman a former top public servant who is now an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria; Ry Moran, executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Centre at the University of Manitoba and Ray Novak, who served as chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and still works with him through Harper & Associates.

Facebook has come under sharp criticism for the role its platform has played in allowing foreign interference in elections in several countries.

However, Chan said the company has already taken steps to try to prevent outside interference in this year's federal election. Globally, it has increased its security team to 30,000 from 10,000 and is using artificial intelligence to try to detect fake accounts.

"We're most concerned about fake accounts, because primarily that's the way bad actors try to do bad things on the platform."

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould has said she will try to convince Google to change its decision not to accept election advertising. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

During a six-month period in 2018, Facebook took down 1.6 billion fake accounts around the world, he said. However, Facebook estimates that at any given time, three to four percent of accounts are fake.

In Canada, Facebook set up a special team in Spring 2018 to deal with issues that arise concerning elections, said Chan.

Chan said Facebook has also partnered in Canada with MediaSmarts to promote digital literacy, and with Agence France Presse to factcheck news stories on Facebook so the company can flag misinformation.

However, Chan warned that preventing people from using its platform to disrupt elections is a constant work in progress.

"I don't think our work will ever be done in this regard in the sense that as we refine our techniques and we develop new technologies and we go after the bad actors, I think that you can expect that the bad actors themselves will also evolve their tactics and change the way they are trying to game the system."

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.