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The founder of a conservative group says he was successful at getting some large donations from wealthy Ontario people, but he’s declining to reveal exactly who gave big money to back his political operations.
Jeff Ballingall founded Ontario Proud, which ran a targeted campaign for $1 million donations to help Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives defeat the Liberal government in the June election.
While the group's fundraising tally is unknown for now and its influence unmeasurable, Ballingall is claiming success and has started a new Facebook campaign "building a war chest to take down Justin Trudeau" in the federal election next fall.
And while Ballingall hails the power of "digital democracy," his approach is raising red flags among political and digital media experts about a lack of transparency by such groups and the potential for circumventing election spending rules by using social media.
An internal document found by the left-wing PressProgress news and information site showed Ontario Proud's "sole purpose" was to ensure the victory of Doug Ford's conservatives.
Ontario Proud was registered as a third party under newly-revised provincial election advertising rules, which for the first time required any organization that spends more than $500 on political ads to register as a third party. Third parties includes groups or people who are not a political party, candidate or constituency association.
The document marked "confidential: not for distribution" lays out a "sophisticated approach," according to PressProgress. It said the document was published on the Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA) website in April 2018, but appeared to have been written several months before.
The document, circulated among business groups, listed a number of "investment options" for potential donors to fund Ontario Proud's online advertising campaigns, database building, and creation of videos and graphics.
Ontario Proud’s fundraising appeal sought up to $700,000 in donations to finance issue-specific content, such as the carbon tax or hydro rates, according to the document, and help fund efforts to collect personal data and influence voters. A representative of the OGCA told PressProgress that the organization did not provide funds to Ontario Proud but did circulate the document to its members.
Ballingall, confirmed the document is authentic in an interview with National Observer, but would not disclose the amount of funds the group collected or who donated.
Ballingall is a former Conservative staffer under the Stephen Harper government and a self-described social media marketing expert. He worked for the Conservative Party of Canada caucus as a video specialist and was on the communications staff of former MP Lynne Yelich when she was a member of Parliament and junior minister for western economic diversification. Ballingall also spent a year as Toronto city councillor John Parker's executive assistant and then at Sun News Network and public strategy and communications firm Navigator Ltd.
Ballingall runs a social media marketing company called Mobilize Media, which describes its work as “compelling content that creates communities.” Both Ontario Proud and Mobilize Media are registered under the same address.
Ballingall said the group was presently undergoing a third party audit that would be disclosed to Elections Ontario in December. He said Ontario Proud's advertising spending "was well under the limits," and that most of the donations were from "small donors."
"We sought bigger donors too and were successful in that," Ballingall said, refusing to disclose any names while the audit was underway. That information would be reported to Elections Ontario as required by every registered third party group.
An Elections Ontario spokeswoman told National Observer that there are no limits on the amount of contributions that may be accepted by a registered third party. Every registered third party has to file a Third Party Political Advertising Report that includes the amount of contributions received, the date and amount of each contribution over $100 and the name and address of the contributor. The reports are due within six months of polling day. For the 2018 Ontario election, this is December 7, 2018. They will be published on the Election Ontario web site 30 days later.
The spokeswoman added that to date only seven reports have been filed for the 2018 Ontario election.
'I think we had a great effect on the outcome of the election': Ontario Proud founder
While Ontario Proud is known for the creation of hyper partisan online campaigns, the documents showed the group's plans went beyond that to building a strong database of supporters, an anti-Liberal and anti-NDP targeted messaging campaigns and a get-out-the-vote push on the ground.
"We will accomplish this by building an online platform to reach, inform and influence, and mobilize Ontarians," the document said.
"We wanted to shake people," Ballingall told National Observer in a Nov. 9 phone interview. "What was going on in Ontario wasn't right and wasn't normal," he said.
Among reasons Ballingall cited for wanting to defeat the Wynne government were "unforgivable" problems such as high hydro bills, tax hikes, and a "decimated" manufacturing sector.
"We had a government who had been in power for way too long, and we felt that it was time for Ontario to have some change," Ballingall said, "and I think we helped bring that change in Ontario."
In the document, Ontario Proud said that these efforts would be accomplished through “social media postal code targeting,” which would allow the group to “mobilize” followers to “vote strategically to defeat the Wynne Liberals," noting too that its targeted advertising would reach millions of voters in key Ontario cities and ridings.
The document claimed the ability to target 510,000 people in Toronto, 250,000 people in Ottawa, 139,000 in Mississauga, 189,000 in Hamilton and 127,000 in London.
The document notes that Ontario Proud had 26,000 Facebook followers and 85,000 email subscribers.
The group is widely touted as Ontario's most popular political Facebook page. There are now 419,319 people that follow the Ontario Proud Facebook page. There is also Alberta Proud (with 152,055 Facebook followers), BC Proud (with 73,794 followers), Saskatchewan Proud (with 23,895 followers), and New Brunswick Proud (with 7,233 followers).
Ontario Proud needs to disclose who funded their campaign: experts
Ontario Proud formally registered as third party after new provincial election spending limits came into effect in November 2017. A lower $500 cap for registered political advertising gave the group "a foothold" to become an official voice in the electoral discourse, Ballingall said. "With the new rules, there was an opportunity to fight back," he added.
But election spending guidelines are broad, critics say, and online campaigning can be used to circumvent election limits because a lot can be achieved on social media with very little money — a concern many have as the country prepares for next year's federal election.
Currently under the Canada Elections Act, third parties that spend more than $500 during a federal election must register with Elections Canada. They can spend just over $200,000 on advertising during a campaign but as much as they want before its official start. Whereas political parties are banned from accepting donations from corporations or unions and face a strict $1,575 cap on individual donations, third parties face no restrictions on donors or the size of their contributions.
"The (election) limits don’t take into account how cheap it is to advertise on social media," said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch. "It’s a more level playing field than its ever been. Now if you do a graphic or share a video, you can reach hundreds of thousands of people you don’t even have to pay."
Conacher worries that the lack of measures around social media's reach and influence means that online activity by political groups can often ignore third party election rules. A group doesn't have to register if it is just sharing content on an online platform.
"When you send an email to a member, that's not an ad," he said. "There are no limits to how many emails you can send...Anything you post or share to your Facebook page, email to your donors, tweet to your followers, does not count as advertising."
This essentially allows online political groups to function however they want and disregard any need to disclose funding information or their group's political purposes.
Chris Waddell, a professor in Carleton University's school of journalism and communications, is also wary of the influence groups like Ontario Proud claim. While they have become a part of the political discourse, it is important that such groups "make a full statement that's easily available to anybody as to who they are, where their money is coming from, and who the people are who are in charge of the organization."
This information should be on their online ads, and without it "everything you hear about social media and the influence it has should be taken with a very large grain of salt," Waddell said, because there are too many unmeasurable factor at play.
"If people see a post, it doesn't mean they register it. It doesn't mean it changed their mind at all," he said. Most often, groups like Ontario Proud are merely strengthening the views of those that already support their political allegiances and perspectives, Waddell said.
Ballingall agreed that the group can't know "for certain" how much influence it had on the election. But he claimed a high level of engagement on Facebook, telling supporters in a "victory update" that Ontario Proud's Facebook content was viewed almost 67 million times. Facebook was the best platform for the online campaign, he added, because "over two-thirds of Canadians are now on Facebook."
He asserted that Ontario Proud's social media reach is "dangerous to dinosaur media and dinosaur politicians who are out of touch with regular people."
"There's lots of groups popping up like ours and I think we need more more voices and more perspectives in politics and this is the great part of digital democracy," he said.
Waddell disagrees with Ballingall's claim that they are enhancing political discourse. "I don’t think social media should be a way to circumvent advertising rules and advertising restrictions on election campaigns," he said. "All we can do is make sure we know who is donating to them."
"And, however much money they raised, I don’t think Ontario Proud defeated Kathleen Wynne. The voters had decided that long ago."
'The purpose now is to defeat Justin Trudeau'
Ontario Proud is gearing up for the October 2019 federal election. "It showed that you don't need massive TV ad campaigns and million dollar budgets to be effective," he said. "The purpose now is to defeat Justin Trudeau. Andrew Scheer is the lesser of evils."
Ontario Proud recently started online campaigns that focus on the federal government's decision to impose a price on carbon pollution, the issue of asylum seekers crossing the U.S.-Canada border, which the group categorizes as "illegal immigration."
In one Facebook post seeking "small donations," the group says: "Just like we did with Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Proud is building a war chest to take down Justin Trudeau." They said they are airing "anti-carbon tax ads across the country."
"By advertising directly to Canadians, we bypass the biased media and ensure voters have the facts," the group writes. "We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars airing ads in Ontario's last election and helped make sure Wynne's Liberals lost official party status. We can do the same thing at the federal level." But Waddell and Conacher remain skeptical that Ontario Proud, or any group like them will influence the federal election.
Conacher hopes stricter election rules will limit the activities from such groups to ensure they are participating in the discourse as fairly as possible. For the first time, the federal bill on election rules is going to require Facebook to create an online directory where anybody can see an election-related ad. Conacher would like it to go one step further by requiring every social media ad to be reported in real time so it can be screened for falsehoods by Elections Canada before it runs.
"What really should happen before an ad runs it should be recorded to Elections Canada so they can say that’s a false ad, it makes false claims. That shouldn’t run through," Conacher said. "That should stop the ad or if it exceeds the spending limits."
"The difficult thing is trying to figure out exactly how much influence (these groups) have and my guess is its less than they’re promoting it to be," Waddell said. "Did Ontario Proud defeat Kathleen Wynne? No. Would Canada Proud or whatever defeat Justin Trudeau? I doubt it."
Editor's note: This article was updated at 3:18 p.m. ET on Nov. 22 to correct that Ballingall worked as a staffer to former Conservative minister Lynne Yelich, and not for Jim Prentice.
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