We need to protect our democracy from digital weapons

Recently at our “Neighbourhood Check-Ups” discussions with Toronto-St. Paul’s residents and when out knocking on doors in our community, we have been hearing new questions and concerns about protecting our democracy — and especially the integrity of the next election.

At our cabinet retreat in Nanaimo and at a policy breakfast in Vancouver, I have now twice had the worrying privilege of hearing from Dr. Taylor Owen, one of the world’s experts on the digital vulnerability of our democratic institutions.  As he said in his August op-ed in the Globe & Mail with Edward Greenspon, we can save democracy from destructive digital threats.

The growth of the internet has resulted in tremendous opportunities for previously marginalized groups to gain a voice, but an absence of a public-interest governance regime or even a civic-minded business ethos has resulted in a flood of disinformation and hate propagated by geopolitical, ideological, partisan and commercial operatives.

The result is that the giant digital platforms that now constitute a new public sphere are far too often being used to weaponize information, with a goal of deepening social divisions, fostering unrest and ultimately undermining democratic institutions and social cohesion. As we’ve seen in other countries, the integrity of elections themselves are at risk.

As we had to learn about and protect ourselves from financials scams, we are now learning more — some of us the hard way — about terms like “cyber-hygiene” and the need to be vigilant about how we conduct ourselves online.  We know not to click on the links sent from someone we don’t know.  We are trying to immunize ourselves from identity theft, and now, as a community, from nefarious attempts to undermine our democratic institutions and our pride in our diversity.

As Dr. Owen stated, “Some people say we need to invest in digital literacy. This is true, as is the broader need to increase civic knowledge and sharpen critical thinking skills. Yet this isn’t sufficient in itself.”

There were calls for real reforms after both the 2011 and 2015 elections here in Canada.  Following the 2016 American election, more and more Canadians have called upon the government to do more to protect us here in Canada.

In April 2018, Minister Karina Gould tabled Bill C-76, which will make Canada a world leader in pro-actively dealing with these digital threats. This legislation has now received Royal Assent and will be in force in time for next year’s election.

With these updates, our elections laws are now able to more effectively confront foreign influence and emerging technological changes.  In particular, they are designed to address some specific issues like:

•  Publishing false statements to affect election results

• Foreigners inducing electors to vote or refrain from voting

• Impersonation offences, such as the creation of false websites or social media content

• Inducing or influencing others to act

• Political bots and the malicious use of computers during an election period

• Foreign-sourced election advertising

I have found the case histories that Dr. Owen has described in his articles and speeches and blogs truly worrying.  Like many people, I did not previously know what “weaponizing” information meant.  An example he described was the infiltration of thousands of fake followers to the social media accounts of certain celebrities (like Beyoncé) who then, in the final days before the 2016 U.S. election, circulated misinformation about Hillary Clinton that was upsetting to the African-American population.  Without sufficient time for the information to be corrected, this meant that thousands of people either changed their vote, or simply did not vote at all.

We are very pleased that Minister Gould has agreed to come to  on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019 to inform us about the security of our electoral system, and to answer your questions.  I hope that you will come out that afternoon and join us for an important discussion about these issues.  We all need become part of the solution — practising better cyber-hygiene and reminding our friends and families that we must be aware and proactive as engaged citizens.

Toronto-St. Paul’s has been a leader in promoting true democracy between elections. We can now play our part in protecting our democracy, and our precious electoral process.