A flood of wild conspiracy theories have run rampant across Canadian social media accounts in recent weeks, spreading rumors about a sex scandal involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a government plot to block a national newspaper from reporting on it. The opposition Conservative Party added fuel to the conspiracy theory, issuing a press release hinting at a nefarious cover-up. None of it was true, but soon enough Trudeau was forced to deny it.
Canadian political campaigns tend to be brief, tame affairs by global standards, but this year conspiracies and falsehoods have become ubiquitous; harassment of journalists has increased; and far-right groups have attempted to hijack the political conversation. A level of dirty politics and divisiveness rarely seen in the country has taken hold, and Canada ― like much of the rest of the world ― has become a place where misinformation dominates elections.
The online conspiracies and vitriol around Canada’s already bizarre election campaign, in which Trudeau has been forced to defend himself after a series of racist photos of him wearing blackface emerged, has not only muddied reality for voters, but also brought tangible threats. Trudeau appeared at a rally last week wearing a bulletproof vest due to security concerns, an extreme aberration for Canadian politics. Even everyday Canadians are finding themselves on the receiving end. A Syrian refugee family once profiled in The New York Times is now struggling to keep their Toronto restaurant open, after receiving death threats due to their son’s participation in a contentious protest against an anti-immigration candidate.
Although the specific hoaxes and rumors misleading Canadian voters are unique, the tactics and methods used to spread misinformation match similar efforts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and many other countries across the globe. Canada instead may have been one of the few holdouts that had, until now, avoided the type of viciousness and outright lies that have infected modern day political campaigning. Social media platforms and private messaging apps have created extremely effective means for politicians and groups who want to influence elections to distort the facts, rile up partisan emotions and create political echo chambers. Meanwhile, political strategists have become increasingly adept at recognizing how far they can stretch the truth in their campaigns.
“The sad thing is you see the same stuff in many places ― in many cases, the exact same content,” said Claire Wardle, founder of First Draft News, an organization that monitors misinformation in global elections. “Bad actors figure out what works.”
A Global Playbook For Misinformation
What may have started with a series of fringe online communities attempting to smuggle baseless reports into the mainstream political conversation has in recent years developed into a detailed playbook that is now being followed around the world, according to Wardle.
Groups blasting out groundless claims on social media have found that their faulty information can eventually get in front of people with mass followings, such as President Donald Trump, who then amplify it to an audience that would have otherwise never been reached.
Politicians and their backroom strategists have likewise discovered they can avoid any real repercussions for promoting such conspiracies, as their supporters largely exist in echo chambers where sympathetic media will regurgitate what they say. Regulation of social platforms hasn’t caught up to their misuse, so misleading political messaging is able to just skirt around company standards. Trump can tweet outright falsehoods to play to his base, for instance, who will only ever see messaging supporting his claims or who will have moved on by the time they are fact-checked.
“There’s no regulation and there’s almost no public shame, because it’s absolutely possible that your supporters will never come across information that tells them what they’ve just seen is false or misleading,” Wardle said.
If Trump has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the growth of misinformation and partisan media, the use of social media to promote faulty claims and obfuscate reality has similarly helped nationalist and populist movements in countries around the world.
In Britain, conspiracy theories about the government owning secret hidden oil fields and allegations of bias against the BBC began to spring up in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. In the lead up to the Brexit referendum nearly two years later, right-wing populist groups campaigning to leave the European Union spread xenophobic and misleading claims to foment anti-immigrant sentiment. In the most notorious instance, the Vote Leave campaign, which included now Prime Minister Boris Johnson, plastered a bus with the widely debunked claim that the U.K. sends hundreds of millions of pounds per week to the EU that would otherwise fund the National Health Service.
The French elections in 2016 similarly featured leading far-right candidates sharing lies from shady media outlets, including claims that President Emmanuel Macron was funded by Saudi Arabia. And in the lead up to European Parliament elections earlier this year, anti-migrant hoax videos and fake news stories spread to every corner of the continent.
How Platforms Reward Misinformation
Social media platforms have not simply been co-opted by bad actors, but have instead actively provided politicians the tools to spread misinformation and shown them how to effectively target audiences. In 2016, Facebook flew a team of people to the Philippines to train candidates including populist authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte, who quickly built a sprawling social media apparatus that spread lies, including one about the existence of a fake sex tape of a political rival. Since winning the election, Duterte has continued to use the platform to support his campaign of extrajudicial killings.
Meanwhile, Facebook and other social media companies have struggled to mitigate the potential for radicalization and disinformation that their platforms created. They have employed large teams to combat disinformation and extremism, but still find harmful content slipping through.
“These platforms recognized advertising was their business model, but they didn’t see any difference between a toothpaste advert and a political advert,” Wardle said. “All of a sudden they’re like, ‘Oh shit, we didn’t realize what we were building.’”
YouTube and Instagram have similarly helped the flow of bad information, with their algorithms rewarding extreme content that traffics in fabrications and emotionally charged messaging. A report commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that Instagram was “perhaps the most effective platform” for Russia’s Kremlin-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency.
But the most pernicious misinformation campaigns may not be the most obvious ones. Private Facebook groups and messaging apps are rife with fabrications, but are harder for journalists and researchers to debunk or track. Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2018 with the help of a massive WhatsApp campaign, as conspiracies and malicious rumors against his opponents went viral on pro-Bolsonaro chat groups. A leftist candidate was even forced to deny allegations of pedophilia after Bolsonaro supporters eagerly shared the baseless accusation on the platform.
India’s election earlier this year was dominated by the indiscriminate spread of misinformation and hateful content on WhatsApp, including anti-Muslim propaganda, fake poll results, accusations that opposition politicians funded terrorism, and out-of-context videos used to make various false claims.
Now as Canada approaches its election day on Oct. 21, similar false information is spreading on closed messaging platforms. An ad targeting Chinese Canadians on the popular app WeChat last week falsely stated that Trudeau’s Liberals would “legalize hard drugs” if reelected. An image making the claim bears the Conservative Party’s logo and says it is an officially authorized ad, but the Conservatives have refused to comment if they are actually behind it.
Quantifying the exact effects of all this misinformation is difficult, but the goal isn’t even necessarily to change people’s minds or to trick them into believing complete fabrications, Wardle says. Although technologically advanced deception — like the manufacture of deepfakes — is a concern, cheap and misleading reports and images are the type of content that tends to spread en masse online. The result is a slow degradation of facts that makes voters cling to whatever fuels their preexisting views and stir up their emotions ― whether in Canada or Brazil, the United States or India. When people share misinformation, they might even know it’s false but what they see is an opportunity to signal their beliefs.
“People have an emotional relationship to information,” Wardle says. “Not a rational one.”