Q: International interference in the 2016 U.S. election continues to be a topic of discussion as that country approaches the 2020 election. How big of a problem is international interference in Canadian elections and what can be done to combat it?
Kira Cheeseborough, Animal Protection Party:
“I still have yet to see any interference within the Canadian election.
“However, I do realize that, with the age of social media, interference is a lot easier to go undetected because we don’t have a lot of regulatory bodies overseeing the use of social media within an election from third parties.
“One example could be companies that are selling engagement on posts with bots that can be very well-programmed to say exactly what customers want them to say to make it look like its organic engagement when it isn’t, which can give a false sense of who is leading the polls, who is garnering the most support. That is one way international interference can occur because these companies can be from anywhere and there are people on an international level who do have interest in Canadian policies and Canadian politics for their own benefit. This is a way they can interfere.”
Cheeseborough said it is difficult to combat the practice.
“The internet is a free space. One thing would be looking at cyberspace and how regulatory legislation can come in without infringing on the freedom of a typical internet user, but to hopefully intervene on these sort of situations.
“For example, if there is a party or candidate that has a large stream of engagement, to have people going behind the scenes and double-checking all of these accounts, all of these people, quote unquote, that are engaging and sharing and spreading a certain message, to see if they are genuine people.
“But it’s delicate because there’s only so much of that you can do without being an infringement of privacy, as well, if they are real people.”
Iain Currie, Green Party:
“How big a problem? I don’t have the technical expertise to tell you how big a problem, but really, any interference is a fairly massive problem. Our democracy is so essential that any foreign interference is a big deal.
“Only if it were a few instances, but it tends to not be a few instances — it’s the sheer volume and reach of social media that enables even a small group of people to have an effect if they want. I think it’s a huge problem.
“Whether it’s going to be more or less or about the same as it was last time, it seems like things are becoming worse. But again, I don’t have the technical expertise to tell you if that’s true or just reading about it more in the media …
“I think we ought to do a better job at managing social media and speaking to each other in a more respectful and less adversarial way because I think a troll stands out among people speaking in a civilized manner to each other and has less impact when the political discourse is more respectful.
“That’s sort of a high-level answer and I’m sure there’s more technical, down-and-dirty answers. That’s where we need to go as a society — to combat fake news and interference through social media is to speak more respectfully to each other, so that the trolls who are based in Russia or North Korea, wherever they are, stand out and so that fake news is easily detectable.”
Cynthia Egli, New Democratic Party:
“I honestly didn’t really think it was going to be a thing here and I’m not sure that I still do think that it would be a thing, but we do have a bit of a platform on it, believe it or not, and that’s that we need to recognize the threat posed by outside interference in Canadian elections.
“The federal New Democrats believe that more needs to be done to stop the spread of disinformation. Social media platforms must be held to their responsibility to flag and remove fraudulent accounts and to respond promptly to harassment, threats and hate speech. No one but the people of Canada should decide or influence the outcome of Canadian elections.”
Ken Finlayson, People’s Party:
“When you said international interference, the first thing that comes to mind is the United Nations.
“Our policy on that is we’re going to minimize our role in the United Nations.
“We think that’s international interference when we’re compelled to sign on to immigration pacts, when we’re compelled to sign on to things like the Paris climate accord, when we’re compelled to change our stance on spending billions and billions overseas when we’ve got people on the street in Kamloops.
“We think charity begins at home.
“When we have First Nations here that don’t have clean drinking water, we don’t think we need to be building roads in Africa.
“We need to prioritize where we spend the money.”
Peter Kerek, Communist Party:
“International interference, you could say, happens on a daily basis with foreign powers and foreign corporations lobbying and meeting with politicians at every level in Canada, trying to gain favours and make inroads for their corporation or their country, their investors.
“I would be more concerned about the regular ongoing influence of lobbyists on our politicians when there are no elections happening.
“Interfering with the way people vote or trying to influence them is a way of saying that Canadians are easily duped by propaganda of one sort or another and elections are a great time to dupe a whole lot of people to vote against their own interest, but that type of meddling, I don’t really think, should make a difference in a country that claims to have a really healthy democracy.
“If your citizenship understands how your politics work and where the parties stand, they shouldn’t be so easily duped by ads that are run on Facebook, which are clear propaganda against one party or another.”
Terry Lake, Liberal Party:
“I think it’s easy to take our democracy for granted and just assume that you don’t have bad actors trying to influence people or somehow taking action that affects the vote.
“But we’ve seen in the United States that Russia significantly interfered with the election in the last presidential election.
“There appears to be some evidence of some of that activity going on in Canada since then.
“The government has taken some action [creating a Ministry of Democratic Institutions] and I think that’s what we need to do.
“We have to be very diligent. We’re lucky we still have paper ballots in our election process, so hacking an electronic voting system doesn’t seem to be one of the issues we have.
“But when you talk about social media and the use of bots and obviously fake stories that are planted and sent around social media, that’s a real concern.”
Cathy McLeod, Conservative Party:
“Absolutely something can be done to combat it.
“I have not got a sense in this election yet if it is a problem, but certainly from work that was done by a parliamentary committee before the election, there was significant potential concerns raised.
“The plan that the government put in place, I’m not sure it’s effective and I think the next Parliament needs to have a serious and significant look at this particular issue, reflect on what happened in this election, reflect on whether the government’s plan had any effect. It’s a changing world and we need to be ready to adapt.”