Twitter’s slap-down of Liberal video reveals rising position of social media giants in election

It was two words thrown in the middle of a Canadian election that exploded online.

A week after the campaign, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted a video in which Conservative leader Erin O’Toole responded to a question about his views on private, for-profit healthcare in Canada.

Twitter suddenly tagged the posts, first in French and then in English, saying it was “rigged media,” apparently because part of O’Toole’s response, which upholds the principle of universal access, has been cut out was.

An online riot broke out, generating criticism and conspiracy theories. The excitement eventually subsided, but not before the English video had been viewed nearly 232,000 times – far more than it would likely have been seen if Twitter hadn’t tagged it.

“If Freeland had posted this rigged video and sent it to the Twitterphere, a small number of people would have seen it and the conversation would have continued,” said Aengus Bridgman, director of the Canadian Election Misinformation Project, which monitors what goes on online during the election .

“The fact that Twitter tagged it as rigged media meant that the topic and the tweet suddenly got tremendous attention and kicked off the news cycle, so to speak.”

The incident sheds light on the role of American social media giants in the Canadian elections – a role that risks being much more active than in previous campaigns.

Aengus Bridgman, director of the Canadian Election Misinformation Project, says social media companies are trying to walk a difficult path between controlling misinformation and enabling free expression. (Louis-Marie Philidor / CBC)

Companies like Facebook and Twitter have come under fire in recent years for not doing enough to prevent their platforms from being used to spread misinformation or manipulate elections and public opinion.

Concerns about the possible role of social media companies in political campaigns became apparent in 2018 when it became known that British consultancy Cambridge Analytica had used data from millions of Facebook users to help drive the former US president’s successful 2016 election campaign Support Donald Trump.

Given the prospect that governments in different countries will now regulate what happens on their platforms, some of the larger players have started to act and have become more proactive, making some contributions on behalf of. remove, label or limit visibility. Combating misinformation or election manipulation.

While some social media companies are taking steps to combat misinformation, others like Telegram are spreading fast. Telegram, owned by Russian billionaire Pavel Durov, is also being used by opponents of COVID-19 vaccines, bans and mask mandates to organize loud, angry protests over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election freezes in recent days.

But it also raises the question of what role the decisions of corporations based in other countries in the middle of a Canadian election should play in restricting freedom of expression by cutting posts or reducing the number of people who see them .

As part of its updated Election Integrity Policy, Facebook is taking several steps, including stepping up fact-checking, placing warnings on posts that contain false information, and banning bogus accounts. Your observers are also on the lookout for attempts by foreign state actors to influence the course of the election campaign.

Facebook will also continue a pilot launched in Canada in February to reduce the amount of political content on Canadian users’ feeds, despite not reducing the number of paid political ads they see.

Twitter started responding to posts from politicians even before the election call. In July, it suspended MP Derek Sloan from its platform for 12 hours after posting a link to a Reuters article about the UK’s decision not to launch a mass youth immunization program and telling Canada to do the same. Twitter has also tagged tweets from Ontario MPP Randy Hillier speaking out against COVID vaccines and bans, as well as a rigged video by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh posted by a regular Twitter user during the election . It has since been removed by the user.

Bridgman said Twitter started stepping up its enforcement efforts a few months ago.

I think what Twitter did is a real shot across the bow that will shake the campaign execution– NDP MP Charlie Angus

“This is part of an initiative by Twitter that began during COVID-19 last year when they really stepped up their media labeling on the platform,” explained Bridgman.

“So they did it in the beginning because there was so much misinformation about COVID-19, and for that they got a lot of criticism. So they introduced this. Then it was applied to political content, somehow known from the American elections, particularly with Donald Trump. And now it is applied to the Canadian election. “

Bridgman said Twitter has a small army of algorithmically-assisted human fact checkers who manually flag problematic tweets.

Bridgman said social media companies are trying to steer a difficult course.

“It’s hard for social media companies to get the PR role here,” said Bridgman. “They are in a tight spot because they want to fix misinformation on their platforms, but they also don’t want to play kingmakers. That is not in their interest and does not look good.”

Professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa said the incidents highlight the challenges associated with trying to moderate content online.

“The government wants platforms to be more aggressive in moderating content, including creating liability and incentives for failing to remove content within 24 hours. But this case shows that many of these cases are very difficult. “

NDP MP Charlie Angus says Canada is a target for white-collar criminals who want to hide money thanks to lax rules. (CBC)

Charlie Angus, MP for the new Democratic Party who was a member of Canadian and international committees investigating the role of social media companies in society, said the fact that someone with Freeland status received an edited video to tweet, is “very worrying”.

“I think what Twitter did is a real shot in the bow that will rock the campaign implementation,” said Angus, adding that the Liberal government should fight disinformation.

“The fact that Twitter was willing to call on someone the size of Chrystia Freeland to post disinformation is a very healthy sign, in my opinion.”

It comes at a good time too, he said.

“Things are going to get really heated, so I think Twitter intervening at this point in the campaign will make everyone think they need to be a little more careful.”

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who was also a key figure in Canadian and international committee hearings on social media companies, said Twitter should have been more transparent about how it makes decisions – rather than just pointing out multi-pronged policies like it has so far been the case with the video tweeted by Freeland.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told CBC News Network’s Power and Politics that his administration had missed an opportunity to lead the way in addressing the global drug problem as a health concern. (CBC)

“I’m assuming it’s the isolated edit they draw from there. But here, too, the reference to ‘universal access’ has been removed. But given the nature of the comments regarding the Saskatchewan MRI Policy, I don’t think it inaccurately characterizes the concern about private payment in a universal system. “

Erskine-Smith also questioned the way Twitter applied its guidelines when it flagged the video tweeted by Freeland.

“The government wants platforms to be more aggressive in moderating content, including creating liability and incentives for failing to remove content within 24 hours. But this case shows that many of these cases are very difficult. “

Conservative MP Bob Zimmer, who served with Angus and Erskine-Smith on the committees examining the impact of social media businesses, and the Conservative Party failed to respond to several requests from CBC News for an interview.

When it comes to how the actions of social media companies might affect the choice, opinions differ.

“I think there is no question that social media companies with their policies of moderation and misinformation are now influencing the election,” said Bridgman. “I think this ship has sailed and it’s not a question of whether or not they will. It’s a question of how much and how they are going to do it.”

However, Erskine-Smith believes that traditional campaign elements like door knocking, politics and debate will have more impact than what happens on social media.

“I don’t think it will have a huge impact in the end as I don’t think the decisions that the private platforms make will have a huge impact in the end.”

Daniel Bernhard, CEO of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, harshly criticized Facebook’s track record in combating abuse of its platform.

“Canada is foolish to rely on the goodwill and expertise of a company like Facebook for the health of our democracy, which has proven time and again that it is both unable and unwilling to act ethically and democratically.”

Bernhard also wants social media companies to disclose the algorithms that they use to control how their platforms work.

“These algorithms make enormously momentous editorial decisions that have major consequences for politics and democracy. Therefore their functioning, but also their transparency, should be a question of regulation – not of goodwill and voluntary compliance. “

Erskine-Smith wants new rules that require more transparency from social media companies, pointing out that Canada has a broadcast standards council but no watchdog for social media companies.

“When we see the power and influence that private platforms wield in our public discourse, it is incredibly important to bring some level of transparency into the way decisions are made by these platforms … not just in terms of specific, discreet policy choices like Twitter’s decision to apply its own standards, but how the algorithms themselves promote or downgrade certain content, “he said.

“As algorithms replace editors and more and more, we need more algorithmic transparency.”

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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