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Canada isn’t a big player on the world stage, but we are on the stage and occasionally we get noticed. But is Canada of such importance, or sufficiently irritating, that another country might want to influence the upcoming federal election the way the Russians mucked about in the last American presidential election?
Canadian farmers are already paying a stiff price for Canada at the behest of the Americans arresting a senior executive of a Chinese tech company. China has put curbs on the import of Canadian soya beans and pork. They have also arrested two Canadians on what on the surface looks like very spurious charges.
As Canadian politics becomes more and more dependent on computers and the internet, does Elections Canada have the knowledge, expertise and the money to ensure the only participants in the October election are, in fact, Canadians?
For many, if not most Canadians, the internet is something they have little or no knowledge of. Many, especially senior citizens, are just learning how to use it. They are amazed at the access they have about anything and everything. But they are learning that while the internet gives them access to the world, it also gives the world access to them.
Last month, Canadians across the country got the following message on their cell phones:
‘Hi, it’s Sarah from the Conservative Party. Can the Conservative Party count on your support in the next federal election?
Reply: Yes or No.’
No matter what the reply, it was valuable information for the Conservatives. A negative reply meant they likely won’t be wasting any money or effort on that person. A positive reply means the Conservatives have a fish on the hook.
But how did they get the phone number?
And then there’s Facebook. Leading up to the election, Facebook appears to be the venue of choice for political advertising.
A couple of weeks ago the CBC reported that the Liberals spent more than $92,000 on some 1,200 ads on Facebook. In the same period, the Conservatives spent just over $87,000 on 284 ads. Facebook indicated that ad prices depend on varying factors, such as, how long the ad runs and the number of people it reaches.
In the same period, the Greens spent just over $1,000, the NDP $392 and the Bloc Quebecois just $384.
That’s just what the parties themselves spent on Facebook. Then there are surrogate players not directly linked to the parties. Engage Canada spent more than $72,000 on ads targeting Andrew Scheer. Canada Proud, a third-party group with a conservative bias, spent just over $20,000 on Facebook.
Earlier this week, the CBC reported that there are a number of provincial groups that are affiliated with a national group. Newfoundland Strong, Nova Scotia Proud, New Brunswick Proud, Quebec Fier, Ontario Strong and Albert Proud are all affiliated with Canada Strong and Proud. These groups have a total of 230,000 followers on Facebook.
While these third-party groups can’t advertise for specific political parties, they can promote policies and election issues favoured by the party of their choice.
Duane Bratt, a professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, told the CBC that these new groups are akin to political action committees like we see in the United States, with the sole purpose of campaigning in favour of one party or one candidate.
While Canada Strong and Proud promotes issues and policies on the right of the political spectrum, there are similar groups on the left. North99 advocates a progressive agenda and voices opposition to the Conservatives. PressProgress is a project of the Broadbent Institute, organized by NDP supporters and named after the former leader Ed Broadbent.
Elections Canada will have a full-time job just trying to manage and monitor all of the Canadian groups and political parties using the internet for the election. There is no indication anything has happened as of yet; however, if the Chinese or the Russians want to influence how Canadians vote, they’ll be hard to stop.
Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.