Use of fake social media bots in Alberta election coming in federal vote: experts

EDMONTON — A federal report confirming the use of false social media posts to try to manipulate last spring's Alberta election points to dangers for the upcoming federal vote, political scientists say.

"Absolutely!" said Duane Bratt of Calgary's Mount Royal University.

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"I think there are greater opportunities in the federal election. What the bots did is exploit already existing cleavages in society — and federally, there are great divides."

On Friday, Global Affairs Canada released a report from the Rapid Response Mechanism. Created after the G7 meeting in Charleboix, Que., it is intended to help monitor and understand how the manipulation of social media can influence democratic politics.

Because the environment was expected to play a large role in last spring's Alberta election, the agency decided to examine the province as a test case for the upcoming federal ballot.

It found significant, organized use of fake social media accounts.

"(We) identified communities that demonstrated a suspicious account creation pattern that is indicative of troll or bot activity," the report said.

"It was mainly comprised of supporters of the United Conservative Party. The pattern was not identified within communities of supporters of the Alberta Liberal Party or Alberta New Democratic Party."

Bots are social media programs that artificially generate social media posts that appear as if written by actual people. Trolls are social media users who intentionally initiate online conflict.

The number of UCP-supporting Twitter accounts nearly doubled in the weeks before the election, the agency found.

The report added that third-party lobby groups were also "spreading disinformation online" before the balloting.

"It's a distortion of the political process," said Chaldeans Mensah, political science professor at Edmonton's MacEwan University.

"The basis for assessing political information becomes questionable. We're relying on computer-generated, outrageous misstatements, outright lies and disinformation."

Bratt said such posts aren't trying to sway opinion.

"It may be used to suppress voting. It may be used to agitate those that are already in your camp."

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said such posts should be illegal. Social media companies should be required to verify the identify of anyone making political posts during an election.

"A bot is a false scheme aimed at misleading voters," he said. "So is anyone posing as 20 different people."

Conacher criticized the federal Liberals for weakening laws that would have helped control bot activity. He said Canada is heading for the kind of polarized, online free-for-all that characterized the last U.S. presidential election.

Christine Myatt, spokeswoman for Premier Jason Kenney, downplayed the report's significance. She pointed out his United Conservatives won with a large majority.

"The growing number of inauthentic troll accounts online is a disturbing trend but, as the report states, there is nothing to suggest that these accounts in any way influenced the results of the election," she said in an emailed statement.

Bratt said he doubts UCP officials were directly involved in organizing the bots. But the response of party supporters to the report has been similar to how supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump or the U.K.'s planned Brexit reacted to criticism, he said.

"They're attacking the media for reporting it. They're attacking Global Affairs for looking at it. They criticize the legitimacy of the entire exercise."

The UCP is initiating its own review of social media. As part of its inquiry into the influence and funding of environmental groups, the government will be referring to U.S. investigations into the activity of Russian social media bots.

Democratic debate deteriorates if it starts off fake, said Mensah.

"You want expressions of views on politics to be done in a way that is authentic, not something that is generated by computer."

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

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