Facebook draws fire over plan to reduce political content

U.S. social media giant Facebook should be more transparent about how it is reducing the political content Canadians are seeing as they prepare to head to the polls in the federal election, New Democrat Charlie Angus says.

Social media giant needs to tell Canadians more about how it is reducing political content: Angus

NDP MP Charlie Angus says Facebook should tell Canadians more about the algorithm it is using to reduce the political content they see in their feeds. (CBC)
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American social media giant Facebook should be more transparent about how it is reducing the political content Canadians are seeing as they prepare to head to the polls in the federal election, says New Democrat Charlie Angus.

In an interview with CBC News, Angus said Facebook has "unprecedented power" and is the source of information for many Canadians.

"When Facebook says they're going to be having less political coverage, I want to know what does that mean practically, because if they are throttling political conversation and political information when many people coming off the pandemic are getting their information online, that could be very troubling," said Angus, a longtime NDP MP who has participated in the work of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation, which studies the influence of social media platforms on countries around the world.

Angus's comments came Wednesday as Facebook unveiled its 2021 Canadian Election Integrity Initiative, which outlines steps it plans to take to prevent its platform from being used by bad actors to influence the election or to spread misinformation or disinformation.

The initiative also includes the continuation of a pilot project Facebook launched in February to reduce the political content that Canadian users see automatically in their Facebook feeds in favour of posts from friends and family.

Facebook Canada's public policy manager Rachel Curran defended the decision to reduce the amount of political content Canadians see in a Twitter exchange with Conservative Senator Denise Batters. (CBC)

In a response to Conservative Senator Denise Batters, who tweeted Wednesday that "information suppression" could "help the incumbent government," Rachel Curran, Facebook's public policy manager and a former aide to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the suggestion was "inaccurate and unhelpful."

"Facebook announced a reduction in organic political content (not political ads) back in Feb, because Canadian users want to see less of it in their feeds," Curran tweeted. "It affects content equally across the political spectrum and all parties have been briefed."

Angus, however, is concerned.

"If they have decided that when you get up in the morning there's going to be more stories about cat videos than what's happening on the political front, I don't know if that is helpful," Angus said. "They need to explain very clearly. They need to be transparent about what they are doing so we know that Facebook's algorithm builders aren't monkey-wrenching public conversation."

The algorithm can't be kept in a black box when we're talking about democracy.- New Democrat Charlie Angus

Angus said Facebook should make public the algorithm it is using to restrict political content in Canadian users' feeds.

"The algorithm can't be kept in a black box when we're talking about democracy. That would be a fundamental. There has to be a transparency factor that we know why content is being promoted or why content is being diminished online through the algorithm."

Angus also questioned whether political players could manipulate the algorithm to reduce political content to favour one party or another.

"Gaming the algorithm is something that you can be rest assured that data mercenaries are working on right now, and the ones who solve that problem will sell it to the highest political bidder," Angus said.

Liberal Party spokesman Alex Deslongchamps said communication via social media is important to the party but didn't directly comment on Facebook's decision to reduce political content.

"It's important that Canadians are able to easily access and exchange ideas with political leaders and candidates online, and we have taken strong steps to ensure transparency and accountability on social media during elections," Deslongchamps wrote.

"Positive engagement online, including on Facebook and other social media platforms, continues to be an important way that the Liberal Party and our candidates work to involve more Canadians in our democracy and elections. Regardless of the platform, the Liberal Party will continue to pursue innovative and engaging ways to connect with more people about our plan to keep Canada moving forward.

Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada is concerned about social media companies' censoring conservative views by removing posts the companies consider misinformation or contrary to their community standards. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

For Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada (PPC), which has actively protested against some of the public health restrictions imposed during the pandemic, Facebook's plan to remove content it classifies as misinformation is more troubling.

"We obviously support their intervening to prevent blatant misinformation that can cause harm, and attempts to distort and manipulate the elections," said Martin Masse, spokesman for the party. "But Facebook (and Twitter and YouTube) rules have clearly been excessive and crossed the line into overt censorship of non-political correct views, and in particular conservative oriented views, these past few years."

Masse said the PPC is less concerned by the move to reduce political content.

"Facebook is a private company that is trying to please its clients, and if they believe their users want to see less political content, then it's up to them to make this decision. Given that users can change their settings to see more if they want, we have no problem with this."

The Bloc Québécois focused on its election advertising plans and refused to comment on Facebook's decision to reduce political content.

"At the Bloc Québécois, we value being present in traditional Quebec media, notably in national and regional radio as well as on large advertising billboards," wrote Yves Perron, chairman of the Bloc's election campaign and candidate in the riding of Berthier–Maskinongé. "On the digital side, we will be present in banners in Quebec media in their online versions. Finally, when we do social media advertising, we will ensure that we fulfil all the legal requirements."

The Conservative and Green parties have not yet responded to requests by CBC News for comment.

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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