In the months ahead of the federal election, the Liberal government assured the public it would hold social media companies accountable for spreading disinformation.
After Canada’s security agencies issued warnings about foreign interference and the government publicly mulled regulating the social media giants, Facebook, Twitter and Google signed a government-developed pledge to double down on election integrity.
Public pressure would be “able to hold these platforms to account in the short term,” Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told reporters in April.
But in its efforts to protect the integrity of the Oct. 21 vote, the Canadian government appears to have overlooked a major player in the social media landscape, National Observer has found.
That platform, Reddit, ended up playing an outsized role in spreading unsubstantiated allegations that the prime minister was immersed in a non-existent sex scandal. It’s a platform where, for years, hate speech and disinformation have thrived within certain Canadian sections of the website.
Government officials who met with Reddit staff on April 8 walked away thinking the platform does not “have a great deal of problems with ‘fake news,’” and is not “particularly useful for co-ordinated disinformation campaigns,” according to a briefing note prepared for Gould in May, obtained through freedom of information.
That conclusion stands in stark contrast with experts’ understanding of Reddit’s role in disinformation.
“It’s absolute BS,” said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
“For the government to come away with the conclusion that fake news or hate speech is not a problem on the Reddit platform is questionable. It betrays an entire lack of familiarity with the platform.”
Reddit is a social media platform built around the sharing of links, pictures and text. Users gather on community-moderated "subreddits" — message boards, essentially — where they can discuss posts. In recent years, it’s been criticized for allowing hateful content on its platform, unless that content incites violence, and has cracked down on some of its most toxic communities.
The platform has two boards that are particularly problematic for spreading false and hateful content about Canada, Balgord said. National Observer has chosen not to name the boards to avoid amplifying their content.
#Exclusive: An internal memo obtained by National Observer shows that ahead of #elxn43, government officials incorrectly thought Reddit doesn’t struggle with fake news and misinformation. Did they let the platform off the hook? #cdnpoli
Though it doesn’t use algorithms in the same way as Twitter or Facebook, which curate users’ feeds based on their interests, the front page of Reddit’s website does rely on a calculus of posts either upvoted or downvoted by users, which signals whether or not they support the post’s content.
It’s odd Reddit wouldn’t see itself as a platform that could be used for disinformation campaigns, or one that has an issue with violent or extremist content, said Fenwick McKelvey, an associate professor at Concordia University who studies digital platforms. Popular content from Reddit is often shared on other platforms, making it a source for viral content.
“Reddit, in some ways, has an outsized influence,” he said.
A spokesperson for Reddit declined to answer questions from National Observer, as the company doesn’t comment on closed-door meetings with government officials.
Gould didn’t answer questions from National Observer, and the Liberal party redirected to the Privy Council Office, which is responsible for the government’s work on the democratic-institutions portfolio.
In a statement, Privy Council Office spokesman Paul Duchesne said the briefing note summarized actions taken by social media platforms to protect the electoral process.
The statement didn’t answer questions about how well the officials who met with Reddit understood the platform, but said Gould corresponded with Reddit and a few other platforms later, in June.
“The minister of democratic institutions also wrote to Reddit (as well as Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, SnapChat and Pinterest) in June 2019 to request that they update Canadians on the steps they were taking to implement the declaration in advance of the pre-writ and writ periods,” the statement said.
'They’re misrepresenting themselves'
The briefing note focused on discussions held in April with Reddit and two other platforms: the ephemeral image-sharing service Snapchat, and Pinterest, an image-collecting site. It refers to the three platforms as “second-tier,” as opposed to first-tier companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google.
The note’s conclusions about Reddit — and even the fact that it was lumped in with Snapchat and Pinterest, which play vastly different roles in the digital ecosystem — indicates government staff may not have known the right questions to ask, Balgord said.
The document said Reddit doesn’t use algorithms to push out content, which isn’t true, as Reddit’s front page does operate with a type of algorithm. It also said posts on Reddit don’t go viral, which McKelvey said is incorrect.
“If Reddit is saying that their platform is more resilient to misleading or entirely false news stories for political purposes... they’re misrepresenting themselves,” Balgord said.
Reddit posts played an instrumental role in spreading a false news story about the unsubstantiated sex scandal, National Observer found earlier this week. That story eventually reached a network of 24 million people, mostly through Reddit.
“By spreading it on Reddit, you can reach huge audiences,” McKelvey said.
Balgord said he’s also seen racist memes circulating on Reddit make their way to Twitter — including the feed of a People’s Party of Canada candidate. He also said he saw unsubstantiated conspiracies on the platform about Elections Canada officials rigging the vote, and people using Reddit to co-ordinate disinformation campaigns in real life or on other platforms.
To stop this, Balgord said, all Reddit would have to do is ban the two Canadian subreddits that cause most of the problems. “They’ve always been a safe space for the alt-right,” he said, and one of the subreddits is openly white nationalist in purpose.
Reddit didn’t answer questions about why it hasn’t banned the subreddits.
After the election, Gould said, the government could consider taking further steps against platforms.
McKelvey said although there appear to have been some misunderstandings, he sees meetings between the government and platforms as a step toward figuring out how to best regulate social media. These discussions raise huge societal questions about free expression that will likely have to be dealt with for the rest of our lives, often on a case-by-case basis, he added.
“It’s a really hard issue,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be fixed, which is why I think it needs to have an institution (to consider it). We’ll be dealing with this for the rest of our lives.”