Countering political disinformation campaigns requires transparency

Posted on January 31, 2019 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Politics

When it comes to the fears of shadowy foreign intervention in a Canadian election, the government answered one of its own big questions, but left so many unanswered for the public.

The big thing in Wednesday’s announcement was a new committee of senior bureaucrats who will alert the country if someone, or some country, is trying to sway a Canadian election with disinformation or disruption.

That answers some of the questions that were burning the mind of government figures, and probably those very bureaucrats – the so-called James Comey question. What should be done if a murky plot to mess with the election is discovered in the midst of a campaign? Do they tell the country? Will that be seen as a move to sway the outcome?

But the bigger problem – about countering such disinformation campaigns – that’s still full of unanswered questions. One of the biggest is about the lack of transparency on social-media advertising. Facebook, as The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday, has just broken one of the best tools journalists use to track and research online political ads.

The federal government assures us there will be people looking into those social-media messages, there will be intelligence projects and task forces and initiatives.

Maybe the spooks and surveillance will do a good job of tracking this stuff. But it’s a safe bet they won’t do a good job in providing transparency for voters. And that’s eight innings of the ball game.

That committee of bureaucrats is a decent attempt to deal with real-time transparency for a Big Event or a major campaign to disrupt the election – such as the alleged Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee and the funnelling of e-mails and documents to Wikileaks.

If something big like that happened during an election campaign, when the political masters of government aren’t supposed to be doing much governing, the five bureaucrats will be informed of such matters, assess if there is a threat to the election process and, if so, inform political parties, then convene a news conference.

That’s supposed to depoliticize the decision and answer the question, in advance, of whether the public should be told if it might affect the election – a version of the question faced by FBI director James Comey when he discovered he had omitted information to Congress about an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.

Forming a committee reduces the chance of one official jumping the gun on his own. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former national security adviser, Daniel Jean, raised questions when he briefed reporters during the PM’s gaffe-filled trip to India that shadowy foreign actors might have worked to embarrass Canada.

But one big problem is that disinformation campaigns won’t necessarily look like a big event, such as the DNC hack. In the United States, Russian-paid social-media ads spread angry memes and false information that were shared or retweeted. It’s not clear how well Canadian intelligence can track such things or how quickly they can uncover a co-ordinated campaign. At any rate, the best election watchdog is transparency that makes it easy for more people to watch.

But social-media companies don’t seem too keen on that kind of thing. Facebook just shut down a tool to track political ads built by U.S. non-profit public interest information site Pro Publica that was used by journalists in Canada and elsewhere, including The Globe and Mail.

It’s often hard to see social-media advertising – ads aimed at one group might never be seen by another. The Pro Publica tool relied on people flagging ads, but also scooped up Facebook’s targeting information – and that allowed researchers to investigate what political messages were being aimed at whom. Now, Facebook has blocked the tool from gathering that targeting information.

The Canadian government is doing a few things to encourage online transparency, including passing a law that will soon require online platforms to publish election-year political ads. But if the purpose is to catch foreign efforts to sway the campaign with disinformation and divisive message, the definition of political ads is too narrow. Those Russian-paid ads didn’t always mention a candidate or a party.

A real effort to try to counter disinformation campaigns would require some broadly open-source transparency for a larger class of paid messages. The big social-media companies seem to believe that clashes with their business model. The government says it “expects” those companies to adopt “best practices” in Canada. But the social-media companies’ notion of best practices remains a long way from the necessary level of transparency.

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