News / Canada

Facebook’s Canadian ‘election integrity’ plan puts much of the responsibility on political players

The plan announced Thursday includes a “cyber hygiene guide” for MPs and political parties that outlines best practices for guarding against malicious hackers.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould described the Facebook initiative as “only a first step.”

the canadian press File

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould described the Facebook initiative as “only a first step.”

Facebook Canada is on Thursday announcing a hotly anticipated plan for shielding the 2019 election from cyber hacks and the spread of fake news and misinformation online.

The social media network’s “Canadian Election Integrity Initiative” puts much of the responsibility on political players and citizens.

It includes a “cyber hygiene guide” for MPs and political parties that outlines best practices for guarding against malicious hackers and identifies common ways bad actors commandeer Facebook accounts and wreak mischief online.

Politicians, their top staffers, parties and eventually election candidates will also get exclusive access to a special crisis email line linked to Facebook’s security team, should their page be compromised.

“This is very much a proactive effort,” Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada’s head of public policy, said in an interview.

The platform has been under scrutiny for enabling Russian-linked groups to place thousands of ads during the 2016 U.S. election in an attempt to spread discord.

“We are very lucky and fortunate, in a way, that we have the luxury of thinking about this two years in advance,” Chan said.

As such the lead-up to Canada’s federal election will also be spent tackling the scourge of political misinformation, via a digital news literacy campaign helmed by MediaSmarts, a non-profit agency headquartered in Ottawa.

MediaSmarts will roll out a series of public-service-announcement video clips in French and English that will teach citizens how to spot fake news, authenticate credible sources, understand the difference between fact and opinion, and identify emotionally-charged or inflammatory posts.

There will also be “missions” — or interactive online games — to test if people have the skills to recognize a misleading post before sharing it.

“People would come away feeling they ought to authenticate (a story),” said Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts’ director of education.

He said the public plays just one part in improving digital democracy.

“We don’t think the burden of misinformation should rest entirely on us (citizens),” he said, adding Facebook’s move is a “very encouraging” start.

Chan said there is potential for further action closer to 2019, such as cracking down on fake accounts that disseminate deceptive content. The company did so in the run up to the recent election in France, targeting 30,000 inauthentic accounts.

Facebook has also vowed to make political advertising on its site more transparent and to beef up its ad review process, among other measures.

“It is not a silver bullet — I don’t think anything is,” Chan said. “That’s not to say as a platform we don’t take our responsibility seriously and we don’t want to do what we can.”

Johnson and Chan will be in Ottawa for the announcement, which will include a panel discussion on digital civic engagement featuring Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.

Gould lauded Facebook’s move, but said it’s “only a first step.”

“There is much more to be done, and social media platforms have a responsibility to take action to ensure the continued protection of our democratic process,” she said in a statement to the Star. “I encourage all digital platforms to think critically about their current practices and how they can create spaces for informed public dialogue and information we consume.”

Facebook’s initiative responds to a cyber-risk assessment from Canada’s electronic spy agency that was done at Gould’s behest. In June, the Communications Security Establishment warned hackers would “almost certainly” attempt to influence democratic process, identifying social media as a key target.

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