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

Three arrested after Keremeos shooting that severely injured one man

The victim was transported by air ambulance to a regional hospital

Okanagan whisky lottery adds new twists

Winners of Okanagan Spirits’ Laird of Fintry lottery announced in four batches beginning Sept. 28

QUIZ: Do you know what’s on TV?

Fall is normally the time when new television shows are released

Penticton Vees return to action with 7-0 win over Salmon Arm

The Vees will get right back to it tomorrow night

B.C. records 98 more COVID-19 cases, most in Lower Mainland

One new senior home outbreak, Surrey Memorial outbreak over

Canadian ski resorts wrestle with pandemic-vs.-profit dilemma as COVID-19 persists

Few are actually restricting the total number of skiers they allow on the hill

Victoria-area RCMP locate high-risk sex offender thanks to help of taxi cab driver

Scott Jones wanted on a Canada-wide warrant, ‘a risk to women and girls,’ police say

A (virtual) walk around the world by 88-year-old B.C. man

George Doi says it’s simple: ‘I like walking’

End of CERB means uncertainty for some, new system for others

As of a week ago, the CERB had paid out $79.3 billion to 8.8 million people

West Kelowna Warriors complete sweep of Vernon Vipers

Warriors edge Snakes 2-1 as Okanagan Cup BCHL exhibition tournament begins

Horgan, Wilkinson trade barbs over MSP premiums, health care at campaign stops

Horgan called a snap election for Oct. 24 earlier this week

Public input sharpens vision of Oyama Ithmus Park

Proposed project to shape the long-term future of waterfront land in Lake Country

COVID-19 outbreak declared at Kelowna church service

Attendees of Calvary Chapel Kelowna’s Sept. 13 morning service may have been exposed

Most Read