OTTAWA — The former executive behind the BlackBerry has an idea to stop misinformation from influencing elections: ban personalized online ads during the campaign period.
Jim Balsillie made the suggestion Tuesday before a global gathering of parliamentarians in Ottawa. “Technology is disrupting governance. And, if left unchecked, could render liberal democracy obsolete,” he said.
He likened social media to radioactive energy. “Data is not the new oil, it’s the new plutonium,” he said. “Amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up, and with serious consequences when improperly used.”
Basillie explained his rationale for the ban is because online platforms have mastered behaviour modification. He called social media platforms a “tool for manipulation” and “not something we want for sale to the highest bidder during an election.”
Watch: Facebook explains new rules for posting election ads in Canada
Representatives from nine parliaments, including Canada, attended the international grand committee meeting. Its mandate is focused on stemming the spread of misinformation on social media platforms. Together, the coalition of parliaments represents 400 million people around the world.
Balsillie, who now chairs the Ontario Centre for International Governance Innovation, said cyberspace “knows no natural borders.” With social media giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter as its biggest players, he said, international coordination is key to finding future solutions.
The rise of social media has decimated traditional print and broadcast news outlets with advertisers flocking to the platforms with their marketing dollars.
“By displacing the print and broadcast media in influencing public opinion, technology is becoming the new Fourth Estate. In our system of checks and balances, this makes technology co-equal with the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary,″ Balsillie said.
“When this new Fourth Estate declines to appear before this committee — as Silicon Valley executives are currently doing — it is symbolically asserting this aspirational co-equal status … The work of this international grand committee is a vital first step towards redress of this untenable current situation.″
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould responded to Basillie’s recommendation by saying there’s already a “robust electoral legislative framework” in place.
She referenced the Elections Modernization Act, which came into law last year, requiring social media companies to keep a registry of partisan and election ads.
The provision is a measure to respond to international concerns about the spread of “fake news” and doctored videos that may influence voting behaviour, specifically from foreign or anonymous actors. But the legislation doesn’t outline any financial penalties to encourage social media platforms to take swift, tough actions.
“Canadians expect social media platforms to take the necessary steps to address the spread of disinformation within their communities,” Gould told HuffPost Canada.
According to Basillie, financial liabilities are exactly what the government needs to introduce to get CEOs to take the problem of misinformation more seriously.
Despite an invitation from the committee, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg did not show up to the meeting. Their absences were emphasized with two empty chairs at the table.
Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada’s public policy head, and the company’s director of public policy, Neil Potts, appeared instead.
In the wake of Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s no-show, the committee voted to formally serve a summons for both to appear at its next meeting or whenever “should they arrive in Canada for any purpose.”
House of Commons’ committees issue summons for witnesses, not subpoenas. If a witness ignores a summons, the House Speaker may be compelled to move a motion of contempt. A witness found in contempt of Parliament mostly faces public humiliation.
Chan told the committee that Facebook takes privacy very seriously. In response to the committee’s concerns about election ads, he said the company will be introducing a “friction-intensive process” to authenticate people who want to post ads.
It will be a three-step process, he explained. Before a partisan or election ad goes up on the site, the person posting the ad would have to share “some kind of ID” with Facebook. The company would then independently verify its authenticity before sending an authentification key that would allow that person to post the ad.
Chan said it would be a multi-day process. But he admitted that he does have some lingering concerns about its effectiveness, namely about “false positives.” He called the verification measures Facebook is undertaking “the right thing to do.”
“This is a very costly and significant investment, it also is not without friction,” he said. Chan added that he’s personally worried about people or groups who may want to run an ad, but may not be aware of this new requirement.
The democratic institutions minister introduced a new declaration on electoral integrity Monday to compel social media companies and the federal government to “ensure integrity, transparency and authenticity” in lead-up to the fall election.
Facebook confirmed to HuffPost the company would join the declaration.
But Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith shared skepticism about his own government’s latest effort to make social media companies accountable for harmful or untruthful content they host.
“It’s easy for them to sign a document without teeth. In the same way that it’s easy for them to try and comply with Canadian privacy laws when they don’t have teeth.”
Parliamentarians gathered beside a Canadian flag to signed their own declaration to reaffirm their commitment to “increase the accountability” of social media platforms and to protect privacy rights and personal data.
The international committee is gathering in Ottawa for a three-day meeting that wraps Wednesday. Its next meeting as a group is scheduled for November in Dublin.