Anonymous group targeting Ford pulls its Facebook attack ads

A mysterious group that has been microtargeting Ontario voters with Facebook ads attacking Conservative Leader Doug Ford says it has stopped running the ads for the final two days of the Ontario election campaign.

Announcement came only hours after report by CBC News

Ontario for Ontarians announced Wednesday it had stopped running its ads attacking Conservative Leader Doug Ford. (CBC)

A mysterious group that has been microtargeting Ontario voters with Facebook ads attacking Conservative Leader Doug Ford says it has stopped running the ads for the final two days of the Ontario election campaign.

Ontario for Ontarians announced the move on its Facebook page shortly before noon Wednesday. The post came only hours after CBC News revealed that the anonymous group, which hasn't registered with Elections Ontario, had been running 10 different Facebook ads, generally critical of Ford.

Ontario for Ontarians announced Wednesday that it has stopped running Facebook ads attacking Conservative Leader Doug Ford. (Facebook)

"As Canadians, the 'freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication' is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," the group wrote. "While we can't speak for the other groups out there, we are not running ads today or tomorrow in alignment with the election advertising laws and are well within the $500 spending limit for unregistered individuals and organizations."

Under Ontario's elections law, there is a blackout period on election ads the day before the election and on polling day.

It is impossible for CBC News to independently verify the group's claim it has spent less than $500. The group has yet to respond to requests for an interview. Officials with Facebook refuse to say how much Ontario for Ontarians has spent, identify who is behind it or even reveal whether they are based in Canada, saying that is "the advertisers' private data."

It's also not possible to know exactly how long the ads ran, or how many Ontario voters they may have reached.

The Facebook page links to the website www.notdoug.com, which is still online, attacks Ford and says it supports the NDP.

Ontario for Ontarians was among two dozen groups not registered with Elections Ontario that CBC News found were running political or advocacy ads on Facebook microtargeting Ontario voters during the election.

CBC News has partnered with ProPublica, a non-profit U.S-based investigative journalism organization which developed a Facebook ad collector. The collector gathers ads from the Facebook feeds of people who agree to download its browser extension.

ProPublica's Facebook ad collector allows CBC News to see not only ads running on Facebook but also who the ads are targeting.

To date, 53 groups running Facebook ads during the campaign have registered with Elections Ontario. However, a review of ads gathered by the collector revealed that two dozen groups have been running advocacy or campaign ads without having registered with Elections Ontario as third parties.

Elections Ontario refuses to say what it is doing to monitor social media ads, whether it has received any complaints or launched any investigations.

It says that even if a group doesn't spend the $500 necessary to trigger registration as a third party, its ads have to list the organization placing the ad. It does not spell out that an advertiser has to reveal who is behind a group.

On the campaign trail, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Elections Ontario should take a closer look at groups running ads who haven't registered.

"It is something that the chief electoral officer will have to look into."

Most of the groups contacted by CBC News were up front about who they are and why they are running ads. In some cases the group said it hadn't registered because it had not yet spent the $500 that triggers the obligation to register.

Other groups say their reading of the law is that they don't have to register because their ad campaigns don't favour any particular party or candidate.

Ontario for Ontarians was one of two groups found to be running Facebook ads without identifying who was behind the group. The second, Vote For Our Children, has run ads attacking Ontario's sex ed curriculum and praising Ford.

While those ads did not appear to be running Wednesday, another ad urging people to vote for Roshan Nallaratnam, the PC candidate in the Toronto-area riding of Scarborough Guildwood, was still showing up in Facebook's ad viewer despite the blackout period.

Between ProPublica's ad collector and Facebook's 'ad viewer', a pilot project Facebook is running in Canada, CBC News was able to identify 10 ads that Ontario for Ontarians was running before they were pulled.

One, which targeted "people aged 18 and older who live near Belleville," referenced a National Post story about Ontario PC candidate Simmer Sandhu quitting in the wake of anonymous allegations.

"Again, you are judged by the company you keep," reads the Ontario for Ontarians Facebook ad. "If that company steals from their employers, what do you think they'll do when they're supposed to work for us?"

Another ad linked to a Toronto Star article about Rob Ford's widow suing Doug Ford over her late husband's estate.

In this ad, Ontario for Ontarians attacks Ford over the lawsuit launched by his late brother Rob Ford's widow. (Facebook)

"Doug Ford's Family doesn't even like Doug Ford," the group wrote. "His Sister-in-Law believes he was a negligent manager of the family business, why should we trust him to manage our province?

A CTV Windsor story quoting the Liberals saying Doug Ford was involved in the sale of fake Tory memberships in 2016 was at the heart of another ad.

This Facebook ad is one of several that Ontario for Ontarians ran during the election campaign. (Facebook)

"Yet another example of Doug Ford breaking the law to benefit Doug Ford," read the ad.

The group evoked the memory of the 2000 Walkerton tainted water scandal in another ad.

"We're still living with the pain of the last time the Conservatives got into power. Just say 'no' to Ford!"

Other ads attacked Ford's position on health care, his decision to have a staffer pose as a reporter in campaign videos and the campaign's decision to hire actors to pose as Conservative supporters.

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

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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