Late last October, Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott opened her Facebook feed to an ad calling her corrupt and incompetent. The attack wasn't a complete surprise. Since March 2021, Elliott and most of the town council had been hammered by dozens of similar ads posted by an anonymous, purportedly local Facebook page called Squamish Voices. Although it bills itself as a “community group,” the page lists neither its founders nor its followers.
“Usually I can have a conversation with someone… We can agree to disagree, but at least there's a person and a reason and a motivation,” said Elliott. “The frustrating part of this last year is that I feel like I've been boxing a ghost.”
A Canada’s National Observer investigation found that ads run by Squamish Voices and at least a half-dozen other supposedly grassroots Facebook pages are linked to Canada Proud, a right-wing political influence group founded by Jeff Ballingall in 2019, and his Toronto-based strategic communications company Mobilize Media Group.
This network is making forays into municipal politics with anonymous Facebook pages in Squamish and Vancouver on the West Coast; Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Brampton in the Greater Toronto Area; Ontario's Georgian Bay; and the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne.
The pages masquerade as community groups, sharing lighthearted posts about local issues. In some cases, they also display misleading information and run smear campaigns. While legal, experts warn pages like these can undermine democracy.
Ballingall is the former digital director for Erin O'Toole's Conservative leadership campaign and also launched Ontario Proud in 2016, a right-wing organization that raised more than half a million dollars, largely from developers and construction companies, to run a Facebook campaign credited with helping Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives win the 2018 Ontario provincial election.
Facebook parent company Meta requires political advertisers to publicly disclose some identifying information, including phone numbers and addresses. Canada’s National Observer used public data obtained from every political Facebook ad run in Canada between January 2018 and December 2021 to identify recurring phone numbers and addresses, then linked those phone numbers and, in some cases, addresses to Canada Proud and Mobilize Media Group.
Some phone numbers listed on the ads are associated with former Mobilize Media Group staffer Angelo Isidorou and others with Canada Proud director Matt Burns. Some addresses listed on the ads belong to Mobilize Media Group. Other addresses include a local post office and general locations like Toronto or Squamish.
Canada’s National Observer attempted to contact Ballingall, Isidorou and Burns repeatedly via phone, email, Facebook and LinkedIn, and did not receive a response. Reporters also left voicemail messages with Canada Proud’s listed phone number and sent Facebook messages and, when available, emails to each of the Facebook pages as well as Canada Proud and Ontario Proud. There was no response from any of them.
A @NatObserver investigation has found that ads run by at least a half-dozen supposedly local Facebook pages are linked to one of Canada's top right-wing communications strategists and his associates.
None of the Facebook pages identify the individuals or organizations behind them, echoing a global trend of political strategists manipulating social media to push particular agendas.
Kate Dommett, an expert on digital campaigning at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. who reviewed the pages, said organizations behind these types of campaigns often create posts designed to draw people in, asking for comments on issues like traffic or housing, as a means to increase engagement and public trust. Then, in the lead-up to an election or other contentious public event, page administrators bombard followers with explicitly political content or smear campaigns.
“They openly talk about the fact they just post scandalous things because it helps them build an audience,” she said.
In Richmond Hill, Marian Nalley, a co-founder of the Council Accountability Group, noticed the Richmond Hill Voices Facebook page when it launched in May 2021 as a self-described “platform for discussions, news, and all things Richmond Hill.”
“I couldn’t find any information on the group itself,” said Nalley. “So I started to dig into it a little bit.” Soon, she found the address listed on ads run by the page matched that of Ontario Proud and Canada Proud.
In December 2021, as the community faced a byelection for mayor, the page ran a slew of ads attacking candidate Carmine Perrelli. Perrelli, a city councillor who was defeated in the election, did not respond to a request for comment. Since the election, the page has reverted to seemingly innocuous reposts and asking users questions like “What’s your favourite weekend activity?” and “Would you try Tim Hortons iced (sic) cream?”
Nalley suspects these posts are a means of collecting people’s data through likes and comments to use in the lead-up to the Ontario election in June and municipal elections in the fall. “They’re trying to direct our elections,” said Nalley. “Why are they sticking their noses in municipal elections? And the way they’re doing it, they’re hiding behind this front, and people are just liking them all over the place because of how well they’re doing their advertising, and people just don’t realize.”
Dommett said Facebook pages like Squamish Voices use the veneer of being a community organization to subvert the “well-established” democratic principle that advertisers shouldn't be anonymous. People in democratic societies need an “honest description” of who is trying to influence them to fashion a well-informed political position, she said.
The growing influence of social media on democracy worldwide has led to increased scrutiny of Meta’s policies for political advertising. The company has responded by implementing some measures to increase transparency, such as requiring political advertisers to submit identification and list phone numbers and addresses, and creating a searchable public database of ads related to politics and issues of national importance.
But in practice, Dommett said, the measures haven't been particularly effective. The advertisers she studies routinely use discontinued URLs, fake addresses or disconnected phone numbers on ad disclaimers, making them nearly impossible to trace.
Meta also doesn't require organizations or companies to reveal who hired them to run ad campaigns. Squamish Voices has displayed at least $15,900 worth of ads targeted at Squamish Mayor Elliott and the city council in the past year, but there is no information about where the money came from. Elliott said the page doesn’t seem to be pushing a specific political agenda but rather aiming to sow “chaos” and erode trust between residents and the local government.
Meta told Canada’s National Observer it reviewed the Facebook pages and “determined that neither the (p)ages nor ads violate our policies.”
Marilyn Iafrate, a municipal councillor in Vaughan, heard about ads circulating on Facebook in January 2021 that accused her of voting to “destroy our wetlands.”
She was somewhat mystified about what the three ads on Vaughan Voices — self-described as a “grassroots organization” concerned about protecting the environment — could be referring to. She consistently votes against opening up agricultural land for further development and is a vocal opponent of Highway 413, a key goal of the Progressive Conservative government that would run across protected Greenbelt lands.
“When you want to attack people, you just take what you want and you leave the truth out,” said Iafrate. “People need to be aware that there are those out there that are sophisticated enough to create a website to look like they’re a legitimate community group.”