A Critical Affair: Canada’s Brand New Political Ad Registry

Bill C-76 might help curb election interference, but voters still have a responsibility to inform themselves

Over the last five years or so, online platforms have introduced an inescapable, almost surreal level of uncertainty to political discussion. The advertising engines that drive Facebook’s and Google’s business models thrive on user engagement, and the more clicks an article receives or the more commenters a discussion involves, the more money is made through the ads the users are subjected to.

This has led to a bit of an oversaturation in political content spread across social media, and because provocative ads are more likely to receive attention than genuinely informative ones, the algorithms that determine which ads are shown (and to whom) tend to promote messages that elicit strong feelings, usually along the lines of moral indignation and outrage.

Society’s increased connection through the internet has helped shape political conflict into a much more accessible and popular media bloodsport, a ceaseless competition in which anybody can participate via the free-for-all arena of Twitter threads or Facebook comment sections. It’s the kind of public spectacle that captures people’s attention, and there are interested parties and businesses who stand to gain from manipulating the discussions in favour of one political party or ideology over the other.

This is why, for years, the government and Elections Canada have expressed concern that this will cause huge problems for the democratic process. Their solution was to pass Bill C-76, which requires that online publication networks like CBC, Postmedia, and even Facebook create publicly accessible registries which identify individuals and groups who buy ads that advocate for political candidates and parties.

Over the internet, anonymity is power. Attempting to influence someone’s opinion without revealing the source of the message limits people’s ability to consider critical context about the topic, and it obscures the advertiser’s intentions. Critical thinkers know that in all advertising, especially political advertising, the people paying for the ads often matter as much as the ad content itself—sometimes more.

Being able to influence the opinions of the electorate without revealing any information about the origin or affiliations of the ad-buyer creates a relationship wherein the anonymous person or group holds the power by protecting themselves from scrutiny. Entities that wouldn’t otherwise have representation in Canadian politics could have a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the election, essentially hijacking this country’s ability to fully inform itself in order to affect legislation down the road.

Concerns over the ease with which fake news can spread and worries about foreign funding and influence have been daunting politicians and the public for a while, so this requirement makes sense, but it may not be enough. There have been instances of other countries or business interests already attempting to sway elections or take control of the wider political discourse, in ways that this new legislation will not be able to adequately address.

For example, last year, a Chinese government-affiliated organization was subjected to an RCMP investigation due to allegations that the group was using social media app WeChat to urge people to vote for particular candidates in the Richmond mayoral election. In February, a CBC analysis of millions of tweets revealed that Russia, Venezuela, and Iran were attempting to use social media to influence public discourse about the Trans Mountain pipeline and immigration.

It’s a strong possibility that Bill C-76 will not be able to prevent similar tactics from being used, so people who truly care about the future of Canada and its politics should make an effort to familiarize themselves with each party’s platform, think carefully about their promises, and consider the effects of their policy decisions. Reducing the ability for anonymous interests to buy ads online is necessary, but no amount of campaign regulation will ever replace an informed electorate armed with plain old critical thinking.

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