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Helping Canadians protect themselves from misinformation will require stricter transparency rules for political advertisers on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, experts say.
Their warning follows a recent investigation by Canada's National Observer that uncovered links between purportedly grassroots Facebook pages focused on a half-dozen Canadian towns and Canada Proud founder Jeff Ballingall and his associates. Ballingall is one of Canada's most prominent right-wing political strategists.
"(We need) some sort of regulation that establishes transparency," said Shane Gunster, a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University who studies online misinformation. Those rules need to be strict enough to ensure that political advertisers — and their funders — can't hide behind a web of false phone numbers, broken URLs and other deceptive means to "launder" their identity, Gunster added.
Facebook parent company Meta requires advertisers to publish some identifying information, including phone numbers and addresses, on disclaimers linked to their ads, which can be searched in the company's ad library.
Meta spokesperson Michelle Anderson added the company requires political advertisers to submit "a personal ID and information about the organization" and provide information about who paid for their ads.
Yet, in practice, Gunster said these rules can easily be circumvented by using phone numbers and addresses that can't be cross-referenced with other Facebook pages, people or organizations.
For instance, the Canada's National Observer investigation used a web of recurring phone numbers and addresses gleaned off Facebook ads run in Canada between January 2018 and December 2021 to uncover the ties to Ballingall and his associates.
Ballingall and his associates did not respond to multiple interview requests from Canada's National Observer.
"Our ability to trace this stuff is almost serendipitous," Gunster said. "If they forget to cover their tracks, you can find them. But if they even took a minute to think about how to launder the trail, it becomes really difficult."
Knowing who is posting — and paying for — political ads is a "fundamental" principle of democracies, he said. Ahmed Al-Rawi, director of the Disinformation Project and also a professor at Simon Fraser University, agreed. People will often trust messages from a supposedly grassroots or community organization more than they would a political organization — a trend subverted by pages like the ones uncovered by Canada's National Observer.
Experts say that helping Canadians protect themselves from disinformation will require stricter transparency rules for political advertisers on social media platforms like #Facebook or #Instagram. #Disinformation
Despite the danger, Gunster warned Canada's current political advertising rules aren't fit to deal with the transparency challenges that social media poses. Meta's Ad Library is a start, he acknowledged, but to be effective, future rules will need to be much more rigorous.
The federal government last week announced it will spend an additional $2.5 million to support projects and organizations fighting disinformation online, on top of an $8.5-million investment announced in 2020. The money will be used to fund projects that increase civic literacy and trust, promote critical thinking online, fight radicalization and "promote change" on social media platforms, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said in a speech announcing the funds last week. He did not announce any plans to require more transparency on social media platforms for political advertisers.
But ultimately, Al-Rawi said the solution lies with Meta and other social media companies. These organizations have the power to compel advertisers to publish detailed and updated identification information on their ads and funding sources. Companies could also spend more on reviewing and flagging misleading or "controversial" content.
"They have all the (advertiser) details in their own servers," he said. "It's one click away for them."