The Current

'Smear campaign' during election highlights 'wild, wild west' of social media, Toronto councillor says

A Toronto city councillor alleges she was attacked in a 'smear campaign' on social media last year, ahead of the city's municipal election. And her story is raising questions about the impact of social media on elections and democracy.

Professor says more data needed to tackle misinformation

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam says she was harassed on social media in the lead up to Toronto's 2018 election. (John Rieti/CBC)

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A Toronto city councillor says she was attacked in a social media "smear campaign" — which included misinformation spread via paid advertisements on Facebook — ahead of the city's 2018 municipal election.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam described the incident Wednesday in a column for Now Magazine — and her story is raising questions about the impact of social media on elections and democracy.

"The things that these technologies enable people to do … is quite damaging," said Wong-Tam, who described the social media world as the "wild, wild west."

Wong-Tam says a group of men suddenly approached her during a visit to a community centre in her Toronto Centre ward last August and began accosting her while recording the incident. 

"It was very unsettling, and I was shaken," she told The Current's guest host Geoff Turner. She added that she reported the incident to Toronto police and the community centre.

Wong-Tam says the group of men, including a former political opponent, began making false accusations against her, such as that she owns 28 condo units. She denied the allegations, telling Turner she owns one.

"I realized that, you know, I couldn't de-escalate the situation because it was all staged to be captured on video, and this began an online smear campaign," she said.

Curbing misinformation online

Wong-Tam says the video was later uploaded to social media, and she became the target of harassment on Facebook and Twitter.

She said paid Facebook ads targeted neighbourhoods in her voting ward and included a voice recording alleging she used her political office to advance her spouse's career — an accusation Wong-Tam also denies.

While Facebook did not comment specifically on Wong-Tam's case, the company said it has "taken steps to stop the spread of misinformation, including removing accounts and content that violate our Community Standards or ad policies, and reducing the distribution of false news and inauthentic content like click bait." 

Twitter said it does not comment on individual cases due to "privacy and security reasons," but "accounts that are reported to us and which are found to be in violation of our policies will face punitive action." 

A threat to democracy?

Elizabeth Dubois is a professor of communications at the University of Ottawa. (CBC News)

With Canada's next federal election on the horizon, one expert worries the efforts of social media giants to curb the spread of misinformation — particularly around elections — may not be enough. 

"We don't have a lot of transparency around what these programs they're putting in place are, how they work, what the evaluation criteria are," Elizabeth Dubois, assistant professor of communications at the University of Ottawa, told Turner.

"For example, when they're trying to determine whether or not something is harassment or whether or not something is, in fact, a political advertisement."

Dubois warns harassment, attacks and disinformation on social media that are meant to cause voter suppression put democratic systems at risk. 

She added that more data is needed on incidents like the one Wong-Tam said she faced.

"We need to know more about what exactly is happening and how so that we can better address it without infringing on things like free speech," Dubois said

Click 'listen' near the top of the page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Kristin Nelson and Alison Masemann.


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