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‘Long slog’ to get ad registry ready for election, Facebook says

News | 02/25/2019 5:59 pm EST
Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada's head of public policy, in January 2017. /Photo by Andrew Meade.

OTTAWA Facebook Inc.’s head of public policy in Canada said the federal government hasn’t fully owned how “significant” an undertaking it is to require social media companies to compile a registry of political ads for the purposes of transparency.

Part of the government’s legislation to modernize elections, which became law late last year, compels online platforms that meet certain traffic metrics to publish a registry of all partisan and election advertising messages and to maintain them for years afterward.

“This is a significant thing to try to build. It requires a lot of engineering and product expertise and it takes time,” Kevin Chan said at an elections panel hosted by Carleton University on Monday. “I can tell you, it’s going to be a long slog between now and June 30th to get it up and running…to make sure it’s ready for primetime.”

“Sometimes I feel the government hasn’t [come out] and claimed it as significant as it is,” he added.  

June 30 is the newly designated pre-election period — where rules like spending limits come into play — leading up to election day on Oct. 21.

Chan said in an emailed statement that the company will meet the legal obligations of the legislation.

Before the end of June, advertisers globally will have access to additional political ads transparency tools,” Chan said in the statement. “These tools help ensure that authenticity and transparency are at the core of paid political advertising on Facebook.”

The panel looked at the impact of artificial intelligence, social media bots and foreign actors on Canada’s elections. On Monday, the country will hold three byelections — in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, which Chan said Facebook will be monitoring very closely.

Chan said he’s feeling “increasingly good about our posture vis-à-vis bad actors on the platform in Canada,” harkening back to the four elections the country had in 2018 and his company’s coordination with elections bodies in the country to tackle problematic players.

“We have not yet seen the type of coordinated inauthentic behaviour that we saw” in Canada as the world saw in the 2016 United States election that ascended Donald Trump, Chan said. Trump was helped by Russian actors sowing division in the country through social media disinformation campaigns.

Coordinated inauthentic behaviour is when groups of online pages or people work together to obscure who they are and what they’re doing, according to a video explanation on Facebook’s website. Chan said to the company’s knowledge, they haven’t seen foreign interference used in that kind of campaign in Canada.

Chan added a caveat: “That doesn’t mean we won’t find it, but I can assure you that 24/7, the team is looking very hard” to make sure the platform is inhospitable for them all the way through election day in October.

However, others on the panel weren’t so optimistic. Allan Rock, commissioner of the Transatlantic Commission on Electoral Integrity, said Russia is going to be chomping at the bit to get at Canada because of Russia’s ostracization from the G8 group of industrialized countries and Canada’s 2017 law sanctioning human rights violators around the world, which includes Russian figures.

“I think we have to brace ourselves for interference and be ready for it,” said Rock, who’s also a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“It’s going to happen in the months ahead.”

— With reporting by Ahmad Hathout at ahathout@thewirereport.ca and editing by Anja Karadeglija at akarad@thewirereport.ca

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