Facebook says it has a special team working behind the scenes during Manitoba’s provincial election to ensure its platform isn’t abused before voters go to the polls next month.
After the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media giant wants its users to know it’s working to ensure bad actors in Canada and abroad don’t meddle with elections.
“Whether they’re run by the Internet Research Agency … out of Russia or other bad actors, these malicious operations have the potential to cause real-world harm and we are escalating our efforts to beat them,” Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada’s head of public policy, said Tuesday in a phone interview from Ottawa.
An analysis earlier this year found the Internet Research Agency, an operation based in St. Petersburg with ties to Russian intelligence, spent years testing out various techniques to gain followers and command attention in order to carry out a campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Chan said Facebook has now set up a special team that’s been in touch with the people behind political Facebook pages in Manitoba and provincial political parties to prevent hacking.
The team has been in place since last year, when Ontario held its provincial election, and has worked on other elections across the country. It also operates as a fact-checking team that can downgrade news stories if they are deemed to be false.
Such stories will still appear on Facebook, but their distribution in news feeds will be reduced. Facebook sends a notification to anyone posting the false story telling them it’s been fact-checked and flagged.
“We have been vigilant. I feel like we have been able to resolve any issues that have come up to everybody’s satisfaction and now, of course, we’re looking to apply the same level of rigour to the Manitoba election.”
Facebook is encouraging candidates to use two-factor authentication for their accounts to protect them from being hacked and has set up a special crisis hotline for any cyberthreats politicians may encounter on the campaign trail.
More needs to be done: security expert
But Ontario cybersecurity researcher and tech expert Jesse Hirsh said the staffing resources provided by Facebook don’t go far enough.
He said despite new efforts by the social media giant, researchers have found that in Europe, Facebook was filled with misinformation and people falsely identifying themselves.
“I think there’s a broader question of whether it’s been sufficient,” he said. “Certainly in the Ontario election it wasn’t. There was still quite a bit of nefarious activity and so I think folks in Manitoba should keep a close eye and not trust Facebook.”
Security concerns also extend to the upcoming federal election. Canada’s electronic spy agency has warned about cyber interference ahead of the October election, and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has said it’s likely foreign actors will attempt to meddle in this country’s elections.
But Chan maintains Facebook is taking those threats seriously and implementing appropriate measures, which extend to political advertising.
Facebook has created an advisory group to advise the platform on potentially problematic ads that are likely to come up during the federal election. The group includes Ry Moran from the Truth and Reconciliation Centre at the University of Manitoba and Ray Novak, who was chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
All advertisements that appear on Facebook or Instagram that are political in nature must meet new standards, rolled out in June in an effort to prevent anonymous and malicious actors from attempting to disrupt or influence the democratic processes in countries across the world.
The ads now have to be labelled as political and the person or group behind them must go through an authorization process, which Chan said could take up to two weeks.
Gone are the days where anyone could post a political ad on Facebook in two minutes, he said.
“People are now able to see everything that is happening from the political advertising standpoint, so they can judge for themselves what messages are being sent to voters.”
Facebook has already pulled ads paid for by the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union connected to a “Keep Liquor Public” campaign targeting the Progressive Conservatives. Facebook deemed the ads political in nature and said MGEU failed to disclose who paid for the ads.
New rules for political ads
Facebook is also now storing ads for seven years in a searchable public database that includes all ads on Facebook and Instagram related to politics and issues of national importance.
“I think we are cautiously optimistic that the ad transparency is giving everybody — most importantly, I think, voters … the ability to see what is actually happening on the platform in terms of political advertising,” Chan said.
He also said the company has also been in touch with Elections Manitoba.
“They have a direct pipeline into us, so if they do find things or they want to report things … for us to take a look at, we have that channel open.”
Elections Manitoba spokesperson Christiana Jones said the organization has taken steps to ramp up its own digital security.
“However, we know we need to monitor and be vigilant, as we always are,” Jones wrote in an email.
“We have been in touch with a number of platforms directly through efforts by election management bodies across the country working together to look at the challenges of cybersecurity.”
Progressive Conservative campaign spokesperson Kevin Engstrom said there have been no security breaches in the central campaign, and said the party isn’t aware of any breaches involving candidates.
He said the PCs are using Facebook to live stream announcements and for targeted advertising.
Manitoba NDP press secretary Emily Coutts said the party hasn’t encountered any security breaches and is taking precautions to ensure the personal information of people it interacts with online is protected and respected.
Liberal spokesman Colin Roy said his party is happy with the measures Facebook has taken to curb political interference by third parties and isn’t aware of any breaches involving the Manitoba Liberals.
Sign up for CBC Manitoba’s newsletter for insight into the latest election news. Every week until the campaign ends, we’ll send you a roundup of what you need to know.