How anonymous social media groups are changing small town elections in B.C.

Anonymous Facebook pages are increasingly part of the political conversation at the municipal level.  (Paul Sakuma / The Associated Press - image credit)
Anonymous Facebook pages are increasingly part of the political conversation at the municipal level. (Paul Sakuma / The Associated Press - image credit)

Pretty much every small town has that local Facebook page.

People post about politics, occasionally rant and rave about the mayor and council, and there are monthly dramas around content moderation and the objectivity of the administrators.

This municipal election year, another type of page has sprung up.

Instead of posts from the public, they're from anonymous administrators. Some messages are fairly innocuous and designed to build engagement. Others are sponsored negative ads, with thousands of dollars spent to target local residents.

Without the source of the money ever known, they can change a town's political culture — and in the case of Squamish, B.C., which has less than 25,000 people, it already has.

"It impacted my family. It certainly impacted my mental health," said Mayor Karen Elliott, who was the subject of an ongoing negative campaign by the anonymous Squamish Voices page, along with several other councillors.

"But the biggest sadness I have is that I wasn't able to recruit more people to run for council because they look at what's happening in social media and they're like, that's not for me."

Elliott isn't running for re-election, and says the Facebook page "isn't the primary reason" for stepping down.

CBC News
CBC News

However, she wants more people — including those at higher levels of government — to be aware of social media campaigns with unknown financial backing becoming more involved in the smallest levels of government.

"This can happen in any small community in Canada now, anywhere."

Fast, cheap and easy

One of those places is just across the Georgia Strait, on Vancouver Island.

"I have had many, many people ask me on doorsteps if I have taken money from foreign influence," said Courtenay councillor Melanie McCollum.

Foreign influence isn't usually a conversation in Courtenay, with a population of under 30,000.

But in recent months, a group called "Take Back Comox Valley" has been doing a mixture of ads and robocalls arguing that it's a big concern. They also allege too many politicians in the region are in favour of higher taxes and too much rental housing.

Like Squamish Voices, it's another anonymous group that has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads and has become the source of much gossip and conjecture in town. In September, the group's website said they were connected to ParentsVoice B.C., which is running school board candidates across the province.

ParentsVoice B.C. is new political organization with roots in conservative Christianity that has endorsed a number of school board candidates across B.C. with anti-vaccine, anti-government and conspiratorial views.

"The lack of transparency in what they're doing when they're calling people seems like a fairly new tactic," said McCollum.

"If you have money to spend, you can say whatever you want … it makes people disengaged and makes people untrusting of the political institutions that we have and our political representatives."

WATCH | An example of a paid ad on the "Take Back Comox Valley" page

 

David Moscrop, political theorist and author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones, says it's not surprising to see these anonymous third-party groups move from federal and provincial politics to smaller municipalities, given it can take just one person to make a large donation to fund an operation.

"I suppose the only surprise would be that it's taken as long as it has for it to pop up," he said.

"As a model of political intervention, it's fast, cheap, easy and depending on the circumstances, effective. It's just going to pop up everywhere, especially as the capacity for people to deploy campaigns like this increases."

Violations of Elections Act?

John French, a Squamish councillor running for re-election, argues that Elections B.C. needs to have more resources and powers around investigating third-party advertising.

"In my opinion, in Squamish there have been multiple violations of the Elections Act by whoever is creating these fake Facebook accounts," he said.

"I have definitely seen it in the past, but not nearly at the level of what we're seeing now, both in quantity and volume and quantity."

During election campaigns in B.C. it is illegal, under the Elections Act, to spend money to persuade the public to vote based on candidates or issues without publicly registering as a third-party and complying with regulations.

The public social media activity of Squamish Voices, Take Back Comox Valley, and similar pages in Metro Vancouver have significantly been reduced since the regulated campaign period began, and French said Elections B.C. should study whether extending that period would have a positive effect as well.

Andrew Watson, director of communications for Elections BC, said "anecdotally, we've seen more advertising moving online," and that third-party advertising on Facebook is not unusual.

He also said under current regulations, there was nothing Elections BC could do about anonymous third-party advertising before July 17 — when the pre-campaign period began — nor it could do anything about issue-based advertising during the pre-campaign period between then and early September.

'I'm not going to click, I'm not going to share'

Moscrop said greater enforcement of election rules can be helpful, but noted that anonymous — and sometimes misleading — rhetoric has always been part of politics.

"The question becomes, well, what do you do about the changing technology and what is the cost of doing that? And [that's] something we haven't worked out yet because people are uncomfortable with the government being the arbiters of these things," he said.

"And the other side is how do you build up residents who have the capacity to process this information critically and say, 'Oh, that's bull, I don't buy it. I'm not going to click, I'm not going to share.'"

In that regard, things already might be changing in Squamish.

"I think I'm seeing a maturing of the people who are participating in the conversations," said French.

"Quite a significant number of my own friends were engaging with Facebook profiles that clearly seemed fake to me. And the newer ones coming into the picture don't seem to be getting nearly as much traction, because I think people are getting themselves educated."