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A highly targeted, often negative, transition to online and social media marketing is taking Canadian politics into a dark new era.
At the heart of the discourse are extensive social media campaigns by the country’s major political parties — and third-party groups looking to target and divide the population.
According to information from Facebook’s Ad Library, Canada’s political parties are spending millions on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.
The Liberals make up more than half of that spending and have kicked it into high gear over the last week as polls continue to suggest a tight finish come election day. The party has paid for more than 10,000 advertisements in the 90 days leading up to Sept. 6.
That adds up to about $1.8 million for the Liberal site and an additional $1 million for Trudeau’s site.
“We believe it is important to meet Canadians where they are, and more and more of our lives have moved online, particularly over the course of the past year,” said Liberal Party spokesperson Alex Deslongchamps.
The Conservatives have spent far less this election, with the Conservative page doling out about $865,000 during the 90-day period on 650 ads, and an additional $65,000 on 170 ads for party leader Erin O’Toole.
The NDP aren’t far behind, spending nearly $660,000 for 500 ads, and an additional $250,000 for about 230 ads for its leader Jagmeet Singh.
It marks one of the largest advertising campaigns in the party’s history during an election.
“The strategy is a mix of traditional ads, digital and social media plus new, innovative techniques across the country to help Canadians learn about Jagmeet’s NDP and our plan to make life more affordable and equitable,” said NDP spokesperson Emily Robinson.
“On the digital side, we are pushing the envelope with brand-new online engagement tools that aim to build community and promote grassroots organizing.”
But the types of advertisements running on Facebook — many launched by third-party groups with clear agendas — rarely build community, said Wilfrid Laurier University political science professor Andrea Perrella. Instead, the campaigns are creating a “barbaric” political discourse.
This played out during the last Ontario provincial election, he said, with multiple campaigns aimed at breaking down the image of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne. The result? An overwhelming landslide victory for Doug Ford’s Conservative party, and a near annihilation of the Liberals in Queen’s Park.
These types of attacks have continued into 2021, he said, this time mostly aimed at Trudeau.
“This is toxic,” he said. “It doesn’t produce healthy, democratic deliberation, it just creates a lot of rage. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing out there on the streets right now, a lot of rage.”
It can’t all be attributed to social media, he said, but it can’t be denied that many of these people are getting their information online.
And with targeted algorithms based on providing content and advertisements that a user is likely to click on, he said, this has very dangerous consequences for the political realm.
It hardens positions and makes it more challenging for people to consider the merits of opposing views simply because they are never subjected to them.
What does this look like in practice? Imagine an advertisement run by the Conservatives critiquing Trudeau. Someone likes the post and then is bombarded by subsequent Conservative posts as well as the various third-party groups with anti-Trudeau sentiments.
The further they fall down the rabbit hole, explained Perrella, the more hardened they get in their position.
And current regulation offers little to control this.
The current definition of political advertising is to either promote a candidate or party, or oppose another candidate or party during the election period, said Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier.
Under the Canada Elections Act, there is a provision against publishing intentionally false and misleading statements.
The problem, said Perrella, is the online world goes beyond just words. There are images, memes and GIFs that can easily distort truths.
“People are drawn to online media because of the images and memes. If they are relying on that to guide their political decisions, then they are using a very toxic form of political communication specifically designed to manipulate.”
It’s a situation with no clear answer or way forward, and any attempt to overhaul the current direction will likely be met by calls of policing freedom of speech and political expression, said Perrella.
But it’s a problem that stands to get worse, not better, if it continues this path.
“It seems we’re in a new world of political communication that screams for a new set of regulations in order to optimize accurate content and minimize the manipulative stuff,” he said.
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Shift to online political media campaigns is creating 'barbaric' Canadian elections – Waterloo Region Record