An unsubstantiated rumour Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left a former teaching job due to a sex scandal has, for the past week or so, spread like wildfire across the internet.
The false information snowballed, passing from a gossip rag to Twitter to the darkest corners of Reddit to Facebook.
A website known for false Canadian news stories published an article dubiously claiming the rumours were correct, which quickly spread to nearly 25 million people and counting, according to the social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle.
But because the fake story appears to originate inside Canada rather than from a foreign power, the federal government’s anti-election-meddling panel — which hasn’t spoken publicly about the rumour — is unlikely to tackle it, experts consulted by National Observer said.
It’s a case study for a crucial gap in Canada’s defences against disinformation on the campaign trail.
“Misinformation is probably going to be spread by domestic actors rather than foreign actors, said Fenwick McKelvey, a communications professor at Concordia University who studies disinformation.
“We don’t have a good counter-mechanism.”
Canadian voters will head to the polls for the federal election on Oct. 21. For weeks amid the chaos of the campaign trail, unfounded rumours about Trudeau have circulated around his departure from West Point Grey Academy, the elite private school in Vancouver where the Liberal leader taught for a few years before leaving in 2001. (A now-infamous photo of Trudeau in brownface originated from a West Point Grey yearbook.)
Gossip rag Frank magazine — rarely a reputable source — published an unsourced story claiming Trudeau may have had an affair with the mother of a West Point Grey student. Then, on Friday, a former Liberal operative hinted on Twitter that news about Trudeau from the Globe and Mail was incoming, and a freelance writer named claimed without evidence that media outlets were “sitting on” a story about Trudeau having slept with a teenager (the writer has since said he regrets spreading the rumour). No such story was ever published and there’s no evidence one was ever in the works.
The same day, a right-wing upstart media outlet called The Post Millennial wrote an article about the gossip, prompted by a Globe and Mail reporter questioning Trudeau in a press conference about why he left the job. In response to that question, Trudeau said he had “moved on” with his life.
Unsubstantiated rumours of a Justin Trudeau sex scandal went viral. Canada's election-integrity law doesn't have a mechanism to stop it. #cdnpoli #elxn43
The former headmaster of West Point Grey at the time, Clive Austin, put out a statement saying there was “no truth” in any speculation Trudeau had been dismissed, but this did nothing to halt the rumour mill.
It likely stuck, McKelvey said, because it plays on a frequent trope in right-wing memes displaying Trudeau as “creepy.” That, in turn, dates back to 2018 allegations the prime minister groped a female reporter nearly two decades earlier.
Each new voice on the West Point Grey rumour added another dimension to the gossip and touched off a fresh groundswell of speculation — even, bizarrely, a rumour that a court injunction from the Liberals had blocked the fictional Globe story. (The paper’s editor-in-chief, David Walmsley, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the Liberal party told Canadaland no such injunction existed.)
This election, Canada has new measures designed to guard against such disinformation, which has the potential to sway elections. In September 2018, the current Liberal government introduced an election-integrity task force of officials from the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and Canada’s two intelligence agencies.
The government also created the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol — a panel of bureaucrats tasked with investigating threats to Canadian elections, activated as soon as the election is called. But the panel is mainly focused on foreign meddling, and all members must sign off before it can notify the public of important incidents.
In response to questions about whether the panel was investigating the false stories circulating about Trudeau, a government spokesperson reiterated that information about threats to the election would be communicated to senior government officials.
“The decision to speak publicly will rest with the panel... should they be of the view any incident or series of incidents threatens the integrity of the election,” the statement read.
The disinformation about Trudeau is widespread and worrying, but it’s difficult for governments to intervene when it’s being spread by domestic actors, said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, a non-partisan not-for-profit that advocates for science-based policy.
“I think we can all agree that foreign interference is something we don’t want in our elections, especially when it’s misinformation,” she said. “I think people’s thoughts on what to do about it are fuzzier when it’s domestic.”
In some ways, McKelvey said, the question of how to handle Canadians who spread incorrect information is “where it gets into ethics” — especially when political groups participate. It’s difficult to regulate those issues without wading into free-speech issues and accusations of partisanship, he added.
“It’s always been kind of a grey area.”
In a statement sent to media outlets Thursday afternoon, after this story was initially published, the Liberal Party said it wouldn't comment on "any story from an outlet with a history of spreading disinformation and complete falsehoods."
‘Leaning into this conspiracy that’s circulating online’
On Oct. 7, the Conservative party put out a press release questioning why Trudeau left West Point Grey, driving another spike in attention to the gossip.
That evening, the Buffalo Chronicle, an American website known for publishing false stories about Canadian politics mixed with wire copy, upped the ante in an unsourced article published with no byline. It claimed without evidence Trudeau was trying to pay off a former student, and that quickly spread through Reddit, Facebook and Twitter to a network of more than 24.6 million people, according to CrowdTangle.
In an email to National Observer, Buffalo Chronicle publisher Matthew Ricchiazzi said he left the reporters’ bylines off the story to protect the identity of their sources, but two journalists had consulted “nearly a dozen” people working in Canadian politics. “In identifying the journalists involved, we would be, in effect, exposing their sources, given the existence of extensive digital footprints linking them,” Ricchiazzi said.
McKelvey said it was clear the rumours weren’t a true story.
“(The Conservative party) should have to wear that (the press release) might have been a bad judgment call,” he added.
The Conservative party didn’t answer specific questions from National Observer about the intent of the press release, and whether it was concerned it may have fanned the flames of an unsubstantiated rumour. Instead, spokesman Simon Jefferies pointed to contrasting reports about why Trudeau left West Point Grey.
In one story Trudeau disputed at the time, the Ottawa Citizen reported he had left to pursue speaking gigs (in fact, Trudeau took a job at a public school). Trudeau’s 2014 biography said he’d had a values dispute with school administration over an article in the school newspaper about dress codes, and that he took a public school job shortly afterward. A 2015 Vancouver Sun article and 2019 book later repeated the same sentiment.
“We were simply asking why Justin Trudeau’s story keeps changing,” Jefferies said in a statement.
All political parties spin information and raise suspicion about the morals of opposing candidates, McKelvey said: “This one is nuanced and slightly problematic because it’s leaning into this conspiracy that’s circulating online.”
Speaking generally, Gibbs said political parties sharing incorrect information has been a “concerning” issue in the current election.
“We’ve seen in this election candidates and even leaders and parties sharing misinformation and information that they should and probably do know is false,” she said.
The Liberal party didn’t respond to a request for comment by publication time Wednesday.
Domestic interference is difficult to regulate
Though the false stories about Trudeau have had significant reach — and in the case of the Buffalo Chronicle, cross-border amplification — they don’t rise to the level of being addressed by the government’s election-integrity panel, McKelvey said.
“Is the Buffalo Chronicle foreign interference? I wouldn’t call it that,” he said. “The threshold for me would be state politics, something a bit more centralized.”
It’s modelled that way because lawmakers were trying to prevent a situation similar to the one during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Kremlin-backed accounts spread false information online, McKelvey said. In general, they aimed to inflame existing societal divisions and increase polarization in online conversation.
The problem is, domestic actors have also adopted these tactics — in the Alberta provincial election in April, for example, federal researchers found no evidence of foreign meddling, but some proof of people within Canada adopting similar techniques.
Talk about regulating ‘foreign interference’ has now become a stand-in for a much more difficult conversation about social conflicts in Canadian society and how we can tackle it, McKelvey said.
Even if there was foreign interference in the current federal vote, we likely wouldn’t know until after the fact, unless the federal government panel was already aware of it and made the news public, McKelvey said. It’s also hard to tell the difference between foreign and domestic meddling, as foreign countries can also use Canadians to spread false information.
This is even more complicated to regulate because scientific evidence increasingly shows false stories are difficult to stop once they’re in the public sphere, McKelvey added.
“It’s harder to correct than it is to get it out there in the first place.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 6:51 p.m. ET on Oct. 10, 2019 to add comment from the Liberal Party. It was updated again at 6:01 p.m. ET on Oct. 11, 2019 to clarify that the former Liberal operative hinted, not claimed, that news about Trudeau, not a scoop, was incoming.