Many of us have accepted that where elections go, you get false information.
But what about a sudden federal race in the midst of a global pandemic? Well, some speculate that it is a breeding ground for a disinformation disaster.
In the first 3 months of 2020, nearly 800 people died and 6,000 were hospitalized worldwide due to unproven theories about the COVID-19 antidote.
Does that mean that holding elections during a worsening fourth wave of coronavirus cases would be a perfect springboard for false information to become dishonest?
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Aengus Bridgman says we have come a long way since the start of the pandemic.
“Actually, I don’t think (COVID-19 misinformation) is going to play a big role,” said Bridgman, director of the Canadian Electoral Disinformation Project.
“This has been a problem for about 18-19 months. People know the problem. They have very strong opinions about it. “
The number of people who could potentially be influenced by false narratives about the virus is “relatively small,” Bridgman said.
“It would require something so gigantic. Some story, some such intense misinformation … something that would completely break the pre-existing narratives. “
Sort of like a government conspiracy to mishandle the virus, Bridgman says, which would still be quite difficult to fly.
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For this reason, David sheinin believes it would be difficult to use the virus to mislead the public. But it would also be quite difficult to use it to craft a false narrative about a politician.
“Politicians are (more or less) on the same page regarding the COVID vaccine, masking and really following the good advice of public health officials,” said Sheinin, political expert and director of the University’s Master of History. of Trent.
With the exception of the People’s Party of Canada, Bridgman says “COVID-19 has resulted in an unusual cross-party consensus in Canada.”
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That’s why Sheinin and Bridgman believe that COVID-19 misinformation won’t be a big deal in this election.
In fact, Sheinin says, in addition to financial promises of recovery, politicians have been avoiding addressing the future of the pandemic altogether.
“The numbers are so close that it is too risky to say something that could perpetuate a drop in the numbers.”
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But as COVID cases spread across the country, Sheinin says politicians are well aware of the pressure to speak out and the “disastrous” effect of making a promise they could not keep.
“They are probably in the strategy rooms talking about this every day.”
Bridgman’s project is currently monitoring serious disinformation and disinformation threats to the 2021 federal elections in Canada.
So far, he and his team have found nothing of concern.
But even if COVID-19 isn’t easy to arm against Canadians, there are still a host of issues that could rock the boat.
“You could imagine something with national defense, obviously there is the crisis in Afghanistan right now; there are very tense relations between Canada and China; the discovery of large numbers of unidentified graves of indigenous children – these are the kinds of issues that people are divided on, that they are passionate about, and that could be potentially divisive, ”Bridgman said.
“Even something like (Minister Maryam Monsef calling the Taliban ‘brothers’) could have an impact, because the numbers are very close,” Sheinin said.
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Sheinin believes that interference from a foreign country is not as likely, as nations like China and Russia are not as interested in Canada as they are in the United States.
“(For) one, we are not that powerful economically and strategically. Also, our parties, as polarized as they are, the Conservatives and the Liberals are actually much more similar today than Republicans versus Democrats in the United States. “
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While there was a lot of talk about foreign interference in the last elections, a study of the Digital Democracy Project revealed that the election was “largely clean.” Bridgman says he is also not concerned about the conspiracies surrounding voter suppression.
Canada’s foreign intelligence and cybersecurity agency says the legitimacy of the 2021 federal elections is not in serious jeopardy.
“We assess that cyber threat actors pose a low threat to the integrity and fairness of the Canadian democratic process, as Canada remains a lower priority target compared to other countries, and our elections are conducted on paper,” Evan Koronewski , a Communications Security Establishment (CSE) spokesperson told Global in an email.
“However, we believe that it is highly likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference before and during federal elections, although it is unlikely to be on the scale seen in the US,” he noted the email.
When asked if a foreign threat had already been identified, the CSE said it could not comment, since the decision to publicly disclose such information rests with the vice ministers.
But, Bridgman says that even if foreign actors are only interested in sabotaging elections south of the border, launching a test in Canada’s federal race would be a great starting point.
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Foreign interference or not, Canadian voters still face the threat of disinformation domestically.
“Disinformation is everywhere during an election campaign … what should really concern us is disinformation and misinformation which is so egregious and so effective that it manages to convince or confuse large numbers of Canadians and potentially compromise the integrity of a choice”.
Sheinin suspects that we could see more false information appear in the last 10 days before Election Day, perhaps about mail-in ballots or the lack of polling stations in schools.
Elections Canada told Global that by mid-August, two to three million Canadians could choose to vote by special ballot (mainly by mail). However, the agency is preparing for an estimated four to five million special ballots, an estimate made during the early days of the pandemic.
The CSE said that allowing more mail-in ballots or other changes made to voting processes due to the pandemic “does not substantially change the cyber threat to Canada’s democratic process.”
Nonetheless, Elections Canada says it is tracking and correcting false information posted on public social media accounts, and is flagging fake election websites and accounts.
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