Bridging the New Great Divide: Reaching the ‘Persuadables’

While social media have had incalculable positive effects on democracy and human rights, the corruption of social media content and exploitation of personal and aggregate data has adversely impacted democracy on two levels: the propagation of misrepresentational content meant to influence behaviour and the doubt cast on democracy as a system as a result of that propaganda. The 2019 Canadian federal election will be a test of one country’s response to the problem.

John Delacourt 

The story is familiar now. The role Facebook (and, to some degree, Twitter) played in the United States presidential campaign of 2016 has been plumbed by a number of investigations. This includes an ongoing study by the House ethics committee in Ottawa on how users’ information is “harvested” by entities seeking to influence the next Canadian federal campaign. In the U.S., it is clear that foreign actors had access to user information that allowed them to micro-target activation campaigns, stoking fears on such topics as irregular migration and “Benghazi-gate”. 

Could such a misinformation campaign happen here in Canada? At least not yet, says one pollster. In August of this year, Abacus Data Chairman Bruce Anderson provided Canadians with a reassuring perspective on the battle to come. Basing his argument on up-to-the-minute polling numbers, he asserted that about 27 per cent of the electorate, or approximately 8 million Canadians, had yet to make up their minds about which party to vote for in 2019. “Let’s call those people the persuadables,” he wrote. “These are the true battleground voters”—those who could presumably decide the result of the next election. Contrary to the partisan tone and fierce rhetoric that characterize political dialogue on social media, these persuadables are far more centrist. “Canadians are generally suspicious of hardened ideology,” Anderson said. “Across Canada, 89 per cent of Canadians believe the country works best ‘by finding middle ground and compromise,’ and 92 per cent of persuadables feel this way.”

It is in the nature of polling and no fault of the commentator, but Anderson’s snapshot of the electorate offers a static rather than dynamic take on the influence of social media on voter intentions. For a forceful riposte to Anderson’s argument, a few minutes of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s opening speech from his Munk Debate appearance in November would do nicely. Bannon spoke to the resolution that the “Future of Western Politics is Populist, Not Liberal.” Bannon asserts there is no longer a centre – or a centrist perspective—that will hold in the U.S., given the “filter bubbles” social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have created—echo chambers that repeat and reinforce partisan positions. 

Conservatives and progressives communicate within parallel media ecosystems; it is increasingly rare for citizens to identify as centrist or persuadable by either side, given how microtargeted content creates visceral, measurable spikes in the emotions that override rational argument. In the course of Bannon’s debate with Canadian-born American conservative political commentator David Frum, what emerged from Bannon’s speechifying was a stark vision of a divided America, where the working class have been let down by the “global elite.” This is the one per cent who have created the real divide: less a racially or culturally determined demographic than one marked by a widening gulf between have and have-not. Populism, from either the left or right, is for Bannon the only kind of politics that can thrive when such a polarized dialogue is the new normal.

Whether Bannon’s perspective is shaped by the political reality south of the 49th parallel, the conditions for a turn from the centre are emerging here. The precariousness of the economic well-being of “the middle class and those hoping to join it” wisely remains an abiding concern for the Trudeau government. There are 19 million Canadians on Facebook—more than 14 million checking their news feeds every day. This makes us the most active users of the platform in the world. The influencers and validators of public sentiment are firmly established on Twitter as well, with some MPs such as Michelle Rempel and Maxime Bernier—who are more than willing to torque up the populist rhetoric—commanding significant numbers of followers. 

What may be pivotal in this turn from the centre is the continuing erosion of trust in public institutions. Edelman’s most recent Trust Barometer revealed that only 46 per cent of the general public here in Canada say they trust their government (as opposed to 61 per cent of the “informed public”). And while 60 per cent are worried about fake news being weaponized for the election campaign, 54 per cent are disengaged with news, consuming broadcast and print stories on a less-than-weekly basis. When distrust, cynicism and ultimate disengagement with politics prevail, they create a vacuum where the forces of disinformation can rush in. These are more than forces of disruption; as the U.S. example affirms, they are forces of persuasion.

The response from the Trudeau government to these forces has been encouraging, with the passing of Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act. As Joan Bryden of Canadian Press reports, it “represents a first stab at grappling with the spectre of social media being abused by bad actors—foreign or domestic—to manipulate election results, exacerbate societal divisions, amplify hate messages or instill distrust in the electoral system.” Measures include banning foreign entities from funding advocacy groups for partisan campaigns, and requiring online platforms to establish a registry of all digital advertisements placed by political parties or third parties during the pre-writ and writ periods (with the added stipulation that the registry remain visible to the public for two years). 

The Opposition, led by Andrew Scheer, seems more sanguine about the threat of foreign actors to the next election. Hamish Marshall, Scheer’s 2019 campaign manager, told a crowd of party faithful at the last Manning Conference that he’s a “huge fan” of building detailed psychological profiles of Canadian voters and targeting them with personalized political messages. The current business model for Facebook is based on such data remaining accessible. Data and dollars remain the highest priorities for any party heading into an election season, so Marshall can hardly be faulted for using the former to drive the latter.

Yet the ground—and public opinion around the world—has begun to shift on these tactics. Around the time Anderson’s firm, Abacus Data, were polling and discovering the number of persuadables remaining in Canada, a significant development in the story of Facebook’s influence on voters occurred in the UK. Sharon White, the Chief Executive of Ofcom, the U.K.’s communications regulator, published an editorial in the Times of London calling for regulatory oversight, much in the way the CRTC here in Canada regulates broadcasters. “The argument for independent regulatory oversight of [large online players] has never been stronger,” White wrote, stating that “in practice, this would place much greater scrutiny on how effectively the online platforms respond to harmful content to protect consumers, with powers for a regulator to enforce standards, and act if these are not met.” 

Soon after, Daniel Bernhard, the Executive Director of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, affirmed its support for the NDP’s proposed slate of policy measures, “that would go a long way toward restoring Canada’s democratic sovereignty over these foreign corporations and their shareholders.” These included the requirement for social media platforms to “collect sales taxes like everybody else, pay corporate taxes like everybody else, and follow the same laws and rules as everybody else.” The “advertising tax loophole” that allows “Canadian advertisers who do business with media companies, like Google and Facebook, to claim $1.3 billion in tax benefits that are supposed to be reserved for companies placing ads with Canadian media, which enrich our society and secure our democracy,” would be closed. All of these measures would make it a lot harder (and more economically prohibitive) for foreign actors to repeat what occurred south of the border in 2016.

The NDP’s recommendations may lack the necessary political capital to be implemented in the short term; however, when federal legislators, regardless of political stripe, realize they may have practical tools to halt the erosion of accountable democracies and democratic processes, there may be no better place to propose them than in election platforms for 2019. The centre may still hold, with truth and accountability as its lynchpins, and that may emerge as the most definitive advancement for Canadian politics in the next federal campaign.  

John Delacourt, Vice President of Ensight, is a former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau and the author of two books, including a mystery novel. 

(Published in Policy Magazine January 2019)