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Editorial: Dirty tricks and our elections

Image by Adeolu Eletu via Unsplash

Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal ? -- when a right-wing company “harvested” information on millions (maybe 50 million, maybe up to 87 million) of its users from Facebook, without their knowledge or permission, and sold it to the election campaign of Donald Trump, and possibly others, to influence voters by “psycho-targeted” ad material.  That company – Cambridge Analytica – was founded by Steve K. Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News and a prominent supporter of Trump, and Robert Mercer, an ultra-rich Republican supporter and mega-donor, and Alastair MacWillson, a cyber-security specialist.  Cambridge Analytica is now defunct, but similar work is continuing under other corporate names.

Dirty tricks have continued to besmirch elections in various other jurisdictions: the UK, Canada, Spain, France, and probably many more. But the newer dirty tricks enabled by the instant transmission and proliferation of misinformation spread by social media bots and targeting people’s vulnerabilities are in a whole new class. Impersonation; outright lies; deep-fake videos; messages sent from mystery accounts – all these and more have entered the political arena.

So far, British Columbia has not had much publicity for dirty electioneering, and Anton Boegman, the Chief Electoral Officer of BC, would like to keep it that way. He has a plan.  Unfortunately, the plan would require the BC Legislature to do something – to update the BC Election Act.

“As British Columbians work to overcome the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, I know that currently there are other, much more pressing priorities for the Legislative Assembly,” Boegman said. “But I encourage legislators to take proactive steps to safeguard our electoral process before the province’s next provincial election, currently scheduled for October 16, 2021”.

He has submitted a report to the Legislative Assembly, recommending changes to the Election Act. The following extract from the press release sums it up:

What are the recommendations intended to accomplish?

The report’s recommendations fall under three themes: fairness, transparency and compliance. The recommendations are:

Fairness

1.      Prevent misleading advertising, disinformation and impersonation

2.      Prevent foreign and out-of-province interference

Transparency

3.      Require transparency around the use of social media bots

4.      Expand the scope and transparency of third party advertising requirements

5.      Require online registries of election ads 

Compliance

6.      Ensure timely digital platform compliance with the Election Act

If adopted by the Legislative Assembly, the recommendations would give Elections BC the tools it needs to more effectively regulate digital campaigning and mitigate the risks of cyber threats to electoral integrity.

“These recommendations will ensure our electoral legislation is fit-for-purpose in the 21st century,” said Chief Electoral Officer Boegman. “While many provisions in current legislation are equally effective regardless of whether campaigning is analog or digital, certain aspects should be changed to ensure our regulatory framework is effective in today’s digital environment.”

 Work on this report began in the summer of 2018, following the publication of an interim report on disinformation and fake news in the U.K. and media coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Elections BC began to look at how British Columbia could proactively respond to potential disinformation and foreign interference in a provincial election. Boegman used extensive research and consultation in preparing the report, including consultations with experts from around the world on disinformation, fake news and cyber threats, other electoral management bodies, and members of the Election Advisory Committee.

The recommendations in Boegman’s report are a bit overdue, as legislatures are usually slow to respond to the need for change.  Acting on them would be a small step in the direction of fairer, cleaner elections.  We need more; we need a change from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, and we need a legislated requirement that political advertising must adhere to the Advertising Standards code instead of being specifically exempted, but these recommended measures would help restrain some of the dirty tricks.