Technology & Science

Mysterious political robotexts may just be the start in a new era of 3rd-party ads

Canada Strong and Proud is just one of many new third-party players entering the scene for the first time this election—and they’re a whole different breed from the groups of elections past.

Advocacy groups sending the messages are akin to U.S. political action committees

Canada Strong and Proud is a new third-party advertiser behind a robotexting campaign in multiple provinces. (The Associated Press)

In June, like many Ontarians, Liberal MP Pam Damoff got a mysterious text from an unknown number. The message started, "Hi, this is Sue from Ontario Strong," before prompting the recipient to respond with the name of the party they intended to vote for in the October federal election. 

"How did you get my number, Sue? And who the heck is Ontario Strong?" Damoff wrote in a tweet

It was a question likely posed by other Canadians who received similar texts over the last year from previously unheard-of groups like Alberta Proud and Newfoundland Strong. Each of the groups have since been revealed to be affiliated with a new third-party advertiser that recently registered for the federal election: Canada Strong and Proud. 

Third parties are groups that are unaffiliated with official political parties or candidates but that advertise messages on specific policy and election issues.

Automated text messages around election issues are legal and commonly used, including by the major political parties. These ones created frustration at least in part because recipients didn't recognize the name of the group behind them, and little information was available online. 

But Canada Strong and Proud is just one of many new third-party players entering the scene for the first time this election—and they're a whole different breed from the groups of elections past, according to Duane Bratt, chair of the department of economics at Mount Royal University.

"There's always been third-party groups, but third-party groups that were doing other things besides what I would call partisan election campaigning," Bratt said. "They were think-tanks looking at a whole variety of public policy issues, or unions."

In contrast, Bratt said, these newcomers are more akin to political action committees like we see in the United States, with the sole purpose of campaigning in favour of one party or candidate. 

Several of these groups have emerged in the last couple of years, testing the waters in provincial elections before debuting on the national stage. There's Ontario Proud, a third-party advertiser created by former Conservative staffer Jeff Ballingall in 2017.

Ontario Proud mainly focused on online advertising in its efforts to unseat Kathleen Wynne's Liberals in 2018 but also used the old-fashioned lawn sign. (Twitter)

By using memes and viral social media content, Ontario Proud quickly garnered a massive online audience and nearly $460,000 in corporate donations to fund its campaign aimed at unseating the provincial Liberals.

Since then, Ballingall has moved on to launch Canada Proud with a similar goal on a national scale, and was hired to consult with several of the Canada Strong and Proud chapters to get them off the ground. Ballingall said he is no longer affiliated with Canada Strong and Proud. 

There are plenty of examples on the left as well. North99, started by two former Liberal staffers in 2017, pushes a progressive agenda and is vocally against the Conservative Party. PressProgress was created in 2013 and is a project under the left-leaning think-tank Broadbent Institute, started by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent. 

Opposing the carbon tax

Canada Strong and Proud is no different. One of the group's directors, Chris Russell—who also runs the affiliated Newfoundland Strong and Nova Scotia Proud — is a former executive on the Conservative Party student organization at Memorial University. The group's provincial chapters pushed anti-carbon-tax messaging and were opposed to Liberal and NDP candidates in their respective provincial elections. 

Russell told CBC News the provincial groups — New Brunswick Proud, Alberta Proud, Ontario Strong, Québec Fier, Newfoundland Strong, and Nova Scotia Proud — are all affiliated with the national group. The affiliated provincial groups have a total of 230,000 followers on Facebook. 

"They are separate organizations more so focused on provincial activity in their respective provinces," Russell wrote in an email.

"It is no surprise that there will be some overlap though, as Canada Strong and Proud's mission will likely align with some of our provincial goals — including to scrap job-killing carbon taxes and to restore stronger government that works for people, rather than politicians."

No limit on donations to 3rd-party groups

There are limits in Canada on how much money political parties can accept in donations, but those limits don't exist for third parties. New rules introduced this year do require third parties to report their spending on advertising, including in the months leading up to the election and not just after the writ drops as in previous elections. 

As a result, some third-party groups spent on widespread advertising before the pre-writ period that began on June 30, avoiding spending restrictions and reporting rules.

Third-party advertisers are required to report any spending over $500, but the cost to set up a website and a Facebook page can be well below that, meaning many of these groups are not required to share their funding or expenditures at all. 

"One thing the [new rules] don't anticipate, and I don't think the government has anticipated, is the transition to digital media," said Jonathan Rose, an associate professor of Canadian politics at Queen's University. "From a cost perspective, it's much cheaper than traditional media, and the dissemination has more legitimacy because it's shared among friends."

What constitutes election advertising?

There's also some confusion about what constitutes election advertising. Rebel Media, for example, was questioned by a voter during Alberta's provincial campaign for distributing lawn signs that read "Stop Notley." Rebel Media did not register as a third party and said the signs were not election campaigning, but advertising for a book of the same title. 

Rose said he's also concerned about some of the messaging coming out of third-party groups. While he said it's rare to see established groups spreading overt disinformation, there are subtle ways their messaging can be misleading, and voters should think critically about the information they see shared online.

"What I'm going to be looking out for in this election is not outright lies but the use of language that encourages false inferences," Rose said. "That, to me, is really problematic."

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