Tech giant Facebook is beginning to ramp up for the next federal election with plans to prevent its platform from being used to spread misinformation that could disrupt the election campaign.
Kevin Chan, global director and head of public policy for Facebook Canada, said he doesn’t know when the next federal election will take place, but his company is getting ready.
“We are already preparing internally for an election, whenever that will happen,” Chan told CBC News. “We have also had outreach externally from public authorities that we have worked with in the past, in the 2019 election, to also get ready.”
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government isn’t scheduled to go to the polls again until October 2023, Trudeau acknowledged in an interview with a Montreal radio station in January that his party could find itself in an election in the coming months.
In the lead-up to the 2019 vote, the federal government set up an elaborate system to detect attempts to interfere in the Canadian election by spreading misinformation or disinformation. In the end, officials concluded that no significant attempts were detected.
Chan said that Facebook never completely dismantled the core team it assembled for the 2019 election. It has remained in place for the provincial elections that have happened since then.
In the 2019 election, Facebook’s team in Canada monitored the platform for signs of people trying to use it to spread misinformation or disinformation as part of an election integrity initiative that also included a cyber threats crisis e-mail line.
“We are currently building out the team to be ready for an election whenever it comes,” said Chan.
Chan’s comments come as the Trudeau government deals with the aftermath of an Ontario Superior Court ruling that struck down the section of Canada’s election law prohibiting someone from making false claims about a candidate or a political leader during an election. The judge ruled that the section was an unreasonable restriction on charter rights to free speech.
‘Drawing these lines is hard for anyone’
Chan said the ruling underscores the challenges involved in deciding what’s unacceptable on social media platforms.
“At Facebook, we are moderating content every day, and with that will come controversy,” Chan explained. “I think you can appreciate that for any decision we make, there will be some people who say we took too much down and then there will be other people who will say we left too much up.
“And so I think that this is something that we recognize is hard and I think that the court decision you saw is a recognition that drawing these lines is hard for anyone.”
Chan’s comments come in advance of his planned appearance Monday before the House of Commons Canadian heritage committee.
The committee, which originally summoned Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg, wants to know more about the dispute that erupted between the company and Australia after that country adopted new rules to pressure the tech giant into paying media organizations for news stories shared on their platforms.
Facebook and Australia finally reached an agreement — but not before Facebook briefly shut down access to news stories in Australia.
Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is working on legislation to address similar issues in Canada.
More money for media outlets
In advance of Monday’s hearing, Facebook will announce today that it will spend an additional $8 million over the next three years to help Canadian news media.
Half of that sum will extend to 2024 Facebook’s existing deal with the Canadian Press, which has allowed the news service to hire ten journalists. The company said the other half will go to small, local media organizations and to “increase the strength of under-represented voices in journalism” — although the company has not yet said what it means by under-represented voices.
Chan said Facebook is also looking to negotiate commercial deals with Canadian news organizations to provide material for parts of its platform, such as its COVID-19 information centre or its climate science information centre.
As Facebook argued in its dispute with Australia, Chan said news organizations benefit from having their stories shared on Facebook because it generates page views that translate into revenue.
Chan argued Australia’s initial proposal didn’t reflect the reality of how the internet and Facebook work, and said Canada appears to be taking a somewhat different approach.
“I’ve heard others refer to the ambition of doing a made-in-Canada approach,” he said. “And I think that ambition will presumably mean getting to a better outcome, an outcome where you have frameworks that are based on evidence, that are based on facts, that recognize the value that the platforms provide to publishers and that allows us to work collaboratively together to ensure the long term viability of news in Canada.”
While Chan has been summoned to testify on behalf of Facebook regarding the events in Australia, committee members say he will face questions on other aspects of the company’s operations.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said he also wants to know more about how Facebook’s algorithms lead users to content that is illegal, violent or hateful, and what the company is doing about it.
NDP MP Heather McPherson said she’s concerned about hate speech and wants to know whether Chan misled the committee the last time he appeared when he said that Facebook removes anything that violates its community standards.