Use of fake social media bots in Alberta election will come to federal vote: experts

Federal report found significant, organized use of fake social media accounts in Alberta

A Twitter app on an iPhone screen. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Richard Drew

A federal report confirming the use of false social media posts to try to manipulate last spring’s Alberta election points to dangers for the upcoming federal vote, political scientists say.

“Absolutely!” said Duane Bratt of Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“I think there are greater opportunities in the federal election. What the bots did is exploit already existing cleavages in society — and federally, there are great divides.”

On Friday, Global Affairs Canada released a report from the Rapid Response Mechanism. Created after the G7 meeting in Charleboix, Que., it is intended to help monitor and understand how the manipulation of social media can influence democratic politics.

Because the environment was expected to play a large role in last spring’s Alberta election, the agency decided to examine the province as a test case for the upcoming federal ballot.

It found significant, organized use of fake social media accounts.

“(We) identified communities that demonstrated a suspicious account creation pattern that is indicative of troll or bot activity,” the report said.

“It was mainly comprised of supporters of the United Conservative Party. The pattern was not identified within communities of supporters of the Alberta Liberal Party or Alberta New Democratic Party.”

Bots are social media programs that artificially generate social media posts that appear as if written by actual people. Trolls are social media users who intentionally initiate online conflict.

The number of UCP-supporting Twitter accounts nearly doubled in the weeks before the election, the agency found.

The report added that third-party lobby groups were also “spreading disinformation online” before the balloting.

“It’s a distortion of the political process,” said Chaldeans Mensah, political science professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University.

“The basis for assessing political information becomes questionable. We’re relying on computer-generated, outrageous misstatements, outright lies and disinformation.”

Bratt said such posts aren’t trying to sway opinion.

“It may be used to suppress voting. It may be used to agitate those that are already in your camp.”

RELATED: Russian election-meddling in Canada linked to Arctic ambitions, report says

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said such posts should be illegal. Social media companies should be required to verify the identify of anyone making political posts during an election.

“A bot is a false scheme aimed at misleading voters,” he said. “So is anyone posing as 20 different people.”

Conacher criticized the federal Liberals for weakening laws that would have helped control bot activity. He said Canada is heading for the kind of polarized, online free-for-all that characterized the last U.S. presidential election.

Christine Myatt, spokeswoman for Premier Jason Kenney, downplayed the report’s significance. She pointed out his United Conservatives won with a large majority.

“The growing number of inauthentic troll accounts online is a disturbing trend but, as the report states, there is nothing to suggest that these accounts in any way influenced the results of the election,” she said in an emailed statement.

Bratt said he doubts UCP officials were directly involved in organizing the bots. But the response of party supporters to the report has been similar to how supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump or the U.K.’s planned Brexit reacted to criticism, he said.

The UCP is initiating its own review of social media. As part of its inquiry into the influence and funding of environmental groups, the government will be referring to U.S. investigations into the activity of Russian social media bots.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Abbotsford Police Department’s public service counter reopens

Some modified protocols in place for the public due to COVID-19

VIDEO: Abbotsford Time Lapse 2020

YouTube user posts video showing time lapse of several Abbotsford locations

Abbotsford resident receives award from B.C. Historical Federation

Bill Glasgow honoured for work on British Columbia History magazine

VIDEO: #FreeThemAll group protests for prisoner rights in Abbotsford

About 20 participate in car demonstration outside of Matsqui Institution on Sunday

Abbotsford Christian’s Meinen named 2A all-star

Zach Meinen named to provincial all-star squad for 2019-20

Trudeau to seek 10 days of paid sick leave for Canadian workers, says talks are ongoing

Paid sick leave is key to keeping COVID-19 spread under control, prime minister says

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

New platform allows readers to make a one-time or ongoing donation to support local journalism

Vancouver Island hasn’t seen a new homegrown case of COVID-19 in two weeks

Island’s low and steady transmission rate chalked up to several factors

Eight people arrested in Victoria homeless camp after enforcement order issued

Those living in tents were given until May 20 to move indoors

Andrew Weaver says he was ready to defeat John Horgan government

Independent MLA blasts B.C. Greens over LNG opposition

20 dead in COVID-19 outbreak at Langley Lodge

There were two new cases detected, according to the Lodge’s update

44% fewer passengers flew on Canadian airlines in March 2020 than in 2019

COVID-19 pandemic has hit airlines hard as travel remains low

UPDATE: One person dead, two in critical condition after Highway 1 collision in Langley

A man and woman were taken to hospital in critical condition

Commercial rent relief applications open as feds encourage landlords to apply

Program would see government cover 50 per cent of the rent

Most Read