Last winter, I received an unusual tip from a data whiz on the West Coast. This person had crunched the numbers on thousands of Facebook ads in a quest to uncover the person behind the "Squamish Voice" Facebook page, a seemingly grassroots online campaign that was attacking local politicians in a small B.C. town.
The data revealed the Squamish Voices page was part of a cross-country network of fake grassroots campaigns in cities and towns across Canada linked to right-wing political operative Jeff Ballingall. Ballingall is the creator of Ontario Proud and Canada Proud, two infamous right-wing Facebook pages credited with helping Doug Ford win his Ontario premiership, and was closely linked to far-right media outlet The Post Millennial. The data also exposed big flaws in Facebook parent company Meta's transparency rules, despite years of calls in Canada and beyond for reform.
The tip sent my former colleague Jessica McDiarmid and I on a journey that included wading through the depths of Facebook's Kafka-esque ad library. It took dozens of emails, Facebook and Linkedin messages and dead-end phone calls to Ballingall and his associates. After spending a few weeks manually retracing the steps our data tipster had taken in a matter of days, we published the story.
It was a hit: Nominated for a prestigious Canadian Association of Journalists award, our reporting was referenced by other publications, and I continue to receive letters from concerned readers about the issue. Despite the success and the likelihood that Ballingall and others are still playing dirty on Facebook, I'm not sure when I'll be able to report another story quite like this.
I'm a journalist, not a computer whiz. Hiring people who can build the types of programming that helped uncover Ballingall's hand is pricey. Digital behemoths — Amazon, Google, Facebook and others — pay big bucks for skilled computer programmers, making it hard for scrappy independent newsrooms like ours to compete.
I would love to do more of these kinds of stories, but it will require your help. Your funding goes a long way to help us work with computer experts who can build important investigative tools to keep track of rampant disinformation.
If you value the work that Canada’s National Observer is doing to expose climate disinformation in our country, work that holds nefarious actors accountable, please consider making a donation to CNO’s spring fundraising campaign to help us continue it.
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