Politics

Facebook says it will blow whistle on attempts to interfere in election

Facebook will take down accounts that try to interfere with the upcoming federal election and make it public regardless of whether the government decides to advise Canadians of an attempt to interfere, says Facebook's head of public policy for Canada.

Statement comes as MPs warn Zuckerberg could be found in contempt of Parliament for ignoring subpoena

Social media giant Facebook says it intends to take a hard line against election interference in the coming federal campaign. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

Facebook says it will take down accounts that try to interfere with the upcoming federal election and make those attempts public, regardless of whether the federal government decides to advise Canadians of any efforts to interfere.

In an interview with CBC News, Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada, said the tech giant is prepared to blow the whistle if it sees signs of "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" by either foreign or domestic players.

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a network of fake accounts created Facebook pages that were spreading information designed to mislead and to achieve a strategic purpose during the campaign.

"For that kind of behaviour, where we find it on our own, through our investigative work, or we are made aware of it through our partners, we will remove these things from the platform and we will publicly share that," said Chan.

Chan said Facebook has taken down such networks around the world but, to date, has not seen any sign of them in Canada.

The government announced in January that a special committee of deputy ministers will be charged with notifying Canadians if a significant level of foreign interference is detected during the election campaign. The government made it clear at the time that it would be careful about making such an announcement to avoid having an impact on the election.

Chan pointed out, however, that the government's threshold of proof for making something public is "particularly high" and it is focused on foreign interference — not domestic bad actors.

'Facebook cares'

"At Facebook, coordinated inauthentic behaviour is going to be about a much broader range of bad behaviour," he said. "And so, I think that there could be scenarios where you will hear from us with respect to coordinated inauthentic behaviour that may not meet certain thresholds for (the government)."

Chan said the decision to take down pages engaging in that kind of behaviour, and to publicize such actions, would be made by the Facebook Canada election team he leads.

"Facebook cares deeply about ensuring that there is a free and fair election in Canada."

Chan's comments come on the eve of the company's appearance in Ottawa before the International Grand Committee, a committee made up of elected officials from a dozen countries looking at big data, privacy and democracy. While the House of Commons ethics committee issued a subpoena for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg to appear, the company will instead send Chan and Neil Potts, Facebook's director of public policy.

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer told CBC News last week the ethics committee could recommend that Zuckerberg and Sandberg be held in contempt of Parliament for ignoring the subpoenas.

On Monday, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould unveiled what the government is calling a Declaration of Electoral Integrity, which will see Ottawa work with online platforms to address any attempts to disrupt the upcoming federal election.

"I wish to stress that the Wild West online era cannot continue," she told the House of Commons. "Inaction is not an option. Disinformation must not stand."

But while Gould described the declaration as a call to arms for digital platforms, many are turning a deaf ear. Gould said Facebook and Microsoft have agreed to work with the government. Google issued a statement saying it supports the government's efforts.

Gould's declaration was greeted by other tech giants with silence.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould holds a press conference in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Chan said platforms that sign on to the declaration are pledging to work with candidates and political parties on cyber security and help them counter malicious attacks. They are also working with Ottawa to establish single points of contact within the government so that they can coordinate collective action on cyber security threats during the election and the period leading up to it.

Chan said Facebook already has agreed to create a registry of political ads — as required by the changes to Canada's election law. He said the company also plans to go beyond the minimum requirements by proactively making public more information about ads and trying to identify bad actors trying to run political ads without registering.

"We will block them if they try to run an ad without authorizing and we will force them through the authorization process."

Chan said the government and platforms also have come up with a way to share information through "a lawful process" that will allow Facebook to remove bad actors that might be detected by Canada's security agencies.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Facebook is expected to tell the committee it is prepared to work with governments to craft laws and regulations to govern the internet. At the same time, Facebook will tell the committee it wants to continue to foster innovation, grow the digital economy and preserve freedom of expression.

Its presentation will focus on four areas: harmful content, privacy, data portability and fair elections.

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


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About the Author

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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