How Anonymous Social Media Groups Are Changing Elections in Small Town BC

Virtually all small towns have this local facebook page.

People post about politics, ranting and sometimes raving about the mayor and council, and there are monthly dramas about content moderation and administrator objectivity.

This year of municipal elections, another type of page has emerged.

Instead of public posts, they come from anonymous admins. Some posts are fairly innocuous and designed to drive engagement. Others are sponsored negative ads, with thousands of dollars spent targeting local residents.

Without ever knowing the source of the money, they can change a city’s political culture — and in the case of Squamish, British Columbia, which has a population of less than 25,000, it already is.

“It’s impacted my family. It’s definitely impacted my mental health,” said Mayor Karen Elliott, who has been the subject of continued negative campaigning by the anonymous page Squamish Voices, with several other advisers.

“But my biggest sadness is that I couldn’t recruit more people to run for the board because they look at what’s happening on social media and they’re like, this isn’t for me.”

Elliott is not running for office and says the Facebook page “isn’t the main reason” for his resignation.

Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott says the anonymous Squamish Voices Facebook group has affected her mental health and that of her family. (Radio-Canada News)

However, she wants more people – including those at higher levels of government – ​​to be aware of social media campaigns with unknown financial backing that are getting more involved at lower levels of government.

“It can happen in any small community in Canada now, anywhere.”

Fast, cheap and easy

One such location is just across the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island.

“A lot of people asked me on my doorstep if I took money from a foreign influence,” Courtenay councilor Melanie McCollum said.

Foreign influence is generally not a conversation in Courtenay, with a population of less than 30,000.

But in recent months, a group called “Take Back Comox Valley” has made a mixture of ads and robocalls arguing that it’s a big concern. They also allege that too many area politicians favor higher taxes and too many rental units.

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 guesswork in town. In September, the group’s website said it was connected to ParentsVoice BC, which manages school board candidates across the province.

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

“The lack of transparency in what they’re doing when calling people seems like a pretty new tactic,” McCollum said.

“If you have the money to spend, you can say whatever you want…it disengages people and makes them suspicious 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 onessays it’s no surprise to see these anonymous third-party groups move from federal and provincial politics to small municipalities, given that it only takes one person to make a large donation to fund an operation.

“I guess the only surprise would be that it took this long for it to appear,” he said.

“As a model of political intervention, it’s fast, cheap, easy and depending on the circumstances, effective. It’s just going to show up everywhere, especially as people’s ability to deploy campaigns like this grows. .”

Violations of the Elections Act?

John French, a Squamish councilor running for re-election, argues that Elections BC needs more resources and powers to investigate third-party advertising.

“In my opinion, in Squamish, there have been multiple violations of election law by anyone creating these fake Facebook accounts,” he said.

“I’ve definitely seen it in the past, but not at the level of what we’re seeing now, both in quantity, volume and quantity.”

During election campaigns in British Columbia, it is illegal under election law to spend money to persuade the public to vote on candidates or issues without publicly registering as a third party and comply with regulations.

Public social media activity by Squamish Voices, Take Back Comox Valley and similar pages in Metro Vancouver has been significantly reduced since the start of the regulated campaign period, and French said Elections BC should investigate whether extending this period would also have a positive effect.

Andrew Watson, director of communications for Elections BC, said “anecdotally we’ve seen more ads move online” and that third-party advertising on Facebook is not unusual.

He also said that under current regulations, Elections BC could do nothing about anonymous third-party advertising before July 17 – when the pre-campaign period began – nor could it do anything. or against problem-based advertising during the pre-campaign period. and early September.

“I won’t click, I won’t share”

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

“The question becomes, well, what do you do with the evolution of technology and what is the cost? And [that’s] something that we haven’t worked out yet because people aren’t comfortable with the government being the arbiter of these things,” he said.

“And the other side is how do you train residents who have the ability to process that information critically and say, ‘Oh, that’s bull, I’m not buying it. I’m not going to click, I’m not going to share.'”

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

“I think I see a maturation of the people who are participating in the conversations,” French said.

“A fairly large number of my own friends were going to Facebook profiles that I thought were clearly fake. And the new entrants don’t seem to be as successful because I think people are educating themselves.”

About Ricardo Schulte

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