News / Canada

Trudeau to Facebook: Fix your fake news problem or face stricter regulations

The prime minister warned that Ottawa would intervene with stricter federal regulations if the social media giant doesn’t address integrity issues.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chats with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer during a bilateral meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 20, 2016. The pair met again in November 2017 and Trudeau warned the Facebook COO that the company could face stronger regulation in Canada.

ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chats with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer during a bilateral meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 20, 2016. The pair met again in November 2017 and Trudeau warned the Facebook COO that the company could face stronger regulation in Canada.

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warned social networking giant Facebook it needs to fix its “fake news” problems or face stronger regulation from Ottawa.

Trudeau told Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in November he was concerned the company wasn’t doing enough to stop the spread of misleading information on their platform, a source with direct knowledge of the conversation told the Star.

Facebook has been under intense international scrutiny for allowing so-called “fake news” — false and often outlandish information presented as legitimate journalism — to propagate on its network.

But as seen during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the tactic can also mislead or manipulate citizens to further political ends – whether by partisan actors domestically, or hostile nations internationally. Facebook has also faced criticism about a lack of transparency around who is buying ads on their platform.

As Canadian political parties prepare for the 2019 federal election, the source said Trudeau suggested Ottawa could intervene if Facebook doesn’t adequately address the issues.

The source described the conversation as “constructive.”

Trudeau’s comments came during a meeting with Sandberg at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam last November. According to the source, Trudeau was particularly concerned about Facebook identifying the origin of partisan “news” posts or advertisements.

Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor Facebook would discuss the specifics of that meeting.

“We stand with the lawmakers around the world, including in Canada, in their efforts to protect the democractic process,” wrote Kevin Chan, Facebook’s policy chief in Canada, in a statement to the Star.

“We will continue to work with lawmakers on the right solution, but we aren’t waiting for legislation to start getting solutions in place now.”

The Trudeau government has a complicated relationship status with social media giants like Facebook and Twitter.

On the one hand, Trudeau and his ministers are the most plugged-in cabinet in Canadian history. Constant Twitter posts, statements pushed out through Instagram, and announcements streamed on Facebook are hallmarks about how this government operates.

On the other hand, there are growing concerns across Ottawa about the reach and power of these platforms — and the possibility of interference in the 2019 election on multiple online fronts.

The Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s high-tech espionage and cyber security agency, has warned it is “very likely” outside groups will attempt to influence the election.

The Star has learned that CSIS held a workshop for researchers to talk about possible responses to “information warfare” and disinformation campaigns last fall. Elections Canada has already taken steps address cyber security issues, and Global Affairs has also taken an interest in the “fake news” phenomenon.

In a statement, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said that social media platforms still have a lot of work to do to address “cyber security, hate speech, and the dissemination of misinformation.”

“Social media platforms play a direct role in how Canadians consume information, and have significant influence when it comes to shaping the public discourse,” Gould’s statement read.

“We encourage all social media platforms to think critically about their current practices and how they can create spaces for informed public dialogue.”

In a statement, Facebook Canada said the company has 10,000 people working on “safety and security globally,” and plans to double that number to 20,000.

Facebook has also launched a “Canadian Election Integrity” initiative late last year, providing a guide for MPs, candidates and parties to guard against mischief online and providing a direct link between political actors and the company’s security team. The company is also taking steps to provide some transparency around who is buying advertisements, and who they’re targeting.

MediaSmarts, a non-profit advocacy group, will also create public service announcements to try and educate Canadians on how to identify questionable information sources online.

But after tampering in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, and attempts to influence several elections in Europe, lawmakers have shown little faith in tech and social media companies willingness to address the issue themselves.

On Thursday, U.K. MPs traveled to Washington to drag Facebook, Google and Twitter before a committee to press the companies to combat misinformation online.

The committee chair, Damian Collins, had previously demanded Facebook and Twitter investigate whether Russia used their platforms to influence the U.K.’s Brexit vote, according to the Guardian. French President Emmanuel Macron, whose presidential campaign was also targeted by hackers, has called for a European-wide data strategy.

A senior official with the Bank of Canada, in a speech in Ottawa Thursday, said the rise of tech giants presents economic policy issues as well. Senior deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins said the growth of these companies, coupled with their relentless appetite for users’ data, presents questions about data privacy, security, and intellectual property.

“If user data are an important source of monopoly rents in the digital age, how should we regulate who owns the data and how they're shared?” said Wilkins.

“We're going to need to judge wisely when it's best to use public policy tools to manage the risks and when it's best to let private enterprise work its magic.”

Trudeau was in San Francisco — Facebook’s backyard — on Friday, trying to promote Canada as a destination for high tech companies and entrepreneurs. The prime minister is not scheduled to meet with the social networking company, however.

With files from Star wire services

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