As It Happens

Canadian democracy at 'mercy' of Facebook manipulation, Tory MP warns during inquiry

Canada is vulnerable to efforts to undermine elections and has not yet reined in the role political ads on Facebook play in spreading disinformation, says a Conservative MP.

Bob Zimmer says 2019 federal election could be vulnerable to disinformation under current digital policies

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer is among other lawmakers in Britain investigating after consultancy Cambridge Analytica obtained personal data of nearly 87 million Facebook users. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
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Canada is vulnerable to efforts to undermine elections and has not yet reined in the role political ads on Facebook play in spreading disinformation, says a Conservative MP.

Bob Zimmer, chair of the parliamentary committee investigating the Facebook privacy scandal, is among a cohort of international lawmakers in London this week scrutinizing the social media giant's digital policy.

Facebook has already faced a barrage of criticism from U.S. lawmakers after consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump's U.S. presidential campaign, harvested the personal data of nearly 87 million people worldwide.

The hearing at British Parliament, however, marks the first opportunity Canadian and U.K. regulators have to probe Facebook's digital practices.

With less than a year to go until Canada's federal election, Zimmer told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner that Canada's democracy is vulnerable to Facebook disinformation. Here's part of their conversation:

What are you worried about that might still be out there for us to find out about Facebook?

There are some documents in the U.K. that we're privy to that I can't speak to right now, just about one of their apps that was allowed on their platform. Again, it's just more and more evidence that's really being stacked up against Facebook and its practices.

It's a high school platform that seemed to be, maybe a university platform would have been more accurate, but collects adult paycheques.

It's being run and managed off the corner of desks. That's certainly what it feels like when they address certain issues. 

They seem to be responding adhoc and yet in the first quarter, they made $13 billion US.

To me it's strange that a company that's making that kind of money isn't more organized, more responsible and maybe more understanding of what their role is in the world.

Lawmakers from nine countries grilled Facebook executive Richard Allan on Tuesday at Britain's parliament as part of an international hearing on disinformation. (Gabriel Sainhas/House of Commons/The Associated Press)

How concerned should people be based on what you've seen in the documents?

Based on the testimony, based on everything that we've heard, I think people have to be concerned in a few ways — personal data being one.

Maybe it's a new reality that we're accepting ... that they have access to our data, but the manipulation scares me most. 

People in democracies around the world and their susceptibility to being manipulated is concerning because even in Canada we're susceptible to it. The Americans are susceptible to it in the midterms just a month ago, so that's my big concern is that it hasn't been fixed. 

We're still at its mercy.

How vulnerable do you think Canada is to the kind of electoral manipulation that we've seen evidence of in the last two U.S. elections and the allegations about the Brexit campaign?

I use the example of Bob Zimmer — that's me.

I'm in a northern riding and if somebody around the globe doesn't like a particular policy — maybe a professional resource policy, and if you're the Americans, who are our biggest competitor, or maybe Russia — they could individually target MPs like myself and run ads that look like they're from my next-door neighbour in Dawson Creek, B.C.

It looks like somebody that's legitimate, but really the ads are bought and paid for in the U.S. or Russia, and that's still going to happen today. 

They have the ability to do it on a massive scale. I think with algorithms, it isn't just the odd little ad. They can dump millions of dollars into political campaigns.

We have a lot of work to do in Canada, just in what kind of rules and regulations we need to have to really curb this. 

Do you think that lawmakers dropped the ball on this and let it get too far out of control before you turned your attention it?

Yes, I think so. I don't think we fully understood the ability and the scale at which they could weaponize the platform. 

If there was only good people in the world, we wouldn't be having this conversation, but the fact of the matter is there's bad people in the world that will misuse a platform like Facebook for their ads. 

We need to be more efficient and find ways until they can't do it.

We have this public space, like social media, where we're allowing conversations to happen — but we can't let the bullies take that public space over.

Written by Amara McLaughlin. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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