Examining disinformation ahead of Canada’s federal election

U of T researchers observe potential election interference efforts on Twitter

Examining disinformation ahead  of Canada’s federal election

Earlier this summer, reports surfaced that possible automated pro-Trump Twitter accounts from the United States were using hashtags to interfere in Canada’s upcoming federal election.

These alleged bots — broadly defined as non-human actors created to mimic human behaviour online — can contribute to an already-existing problem of disinformation and ‘fake news.’

While Twitter has denied any large-scale disinformation campaigns, others have suggested that manipulation attempts are simply a reality of today’s social media landscape.

Amid the proliferation of false information online, how could one spot bots in their feed?


Perhaps the most infamous case of social media election interference is the Russian online disinformation campaign. According to the Mueller report, it is alleged to have contributed to the election of Donald Trump. However, as campaigning heats up for Canada’s federal election on October 21, U of T researchers have been looking into how automated social media accounts could be generating and spreading digital disinformation at home.

Dr. Alexei Abrahams, a research fellow at The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, has assisted researcher Dr. Marc Owen Jones in exploring the contentious issue. By examining 34,000 tweets posted between September 3 and 5 of this year, Jones found that 15 per cent of the approximately 4,896 accounts using #TrudeauMustGo were linked to American far-right-wing politics. According to Jones, the behaviour of these accounts was consistent with that of political bots or orchestrated ‘trolls.’

In July, the National Observer reported on similar bot interference after #TrudeauMustGo became a trending topic on Canadian Twitter. In this instance, 31,600 tweets posted between July 16–17 were analyzed, with some accounts displaying “indicators of inauthentic activity.”

In an email to The Varsity, Abrahams confirmed that he and Jones were collecting data, but maintained that the “Canadian elections are not a major target for inauthentic, coordinated behavior.”

Abrahams discussed the potential consequences of disinformation online in a recent interview with CTV News. “You reach a place, when you’re exposed to so much misinformation, that you’re agnostic toward any sort of information,” he said.

“It ultimately leads to a sort of withdrawal from political life and from the activity of inquiring, because you just become frustrated and skeptical, then ultimately disenchanted.”

Automated disinformation

While much of the conversation around automated social media accounts and their contribution to new concerns surrounding ‘fake news’ involves the United States and the United Kingdom, there have been multiple documented cases of attempted election interference in Canada.

In 2017, university professors Fenwick McKelvey and Elizabeth Dubois released a study on the role of bots in the Canadian media landscape. The study found that Canada has not critically engaged with the role of bots in its democratic processes.

Citing the 2015 federal election campaign, McKelvey and Dubois illustrated how frequent automated tweets using the #cdnpoli hashtag amplified anti-Stephen Harper sentiment.

However, the researchers also highlighted the potential of bots for positive political engagement, including automated accounts created to increase government transparency.

More recently, Global Affairs Canada shared a report by Rapid Response Mechanism — a G7 response coordination group — outlining how “coordinated inauthentic [online] behaviour” was present during Alberta’s 2019 provincial election. While the report notes that the ‘inauthentic behaviour’ did not seriously interfere in the election, the existence of the coordinated disinformation has some questioning the power of bots in democratic processes.

Other reports have suggested that bot activity had amplified the tweets of now-Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, during his provincial election campaign last year.

How to spot and prevent disinformation

Dr. Brett Caraway, an assistant professor at U of T’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology, discussed the pressing concerns of false reporting in democratic institutions in an interview with The Varsity.

“When you have bots or fake news outlets, any sort of party that is interested in influencing a political outcome in an election, it creates some very real level of confusion over facts,” he said. “And that’s the part that I think is so dangerous to a healthy thriving democracy.”

When asked how users could protect themselves from being exposed to or perpetuating disinformation, Caraway outlined several measures. Users should question anonymous sources, examine URLs for proper sourcing, identify the dates on articles, read beyond headlines, check multiple sources, and put in effort when reading and sharing content.

Broadly, however, he believes that the government should take more measures to promote media literacy because it is “just as important as learning to read and write at this stage.”

According to Caraway, media literacy education should focus on three components: how to find authoritative information, how to value different kinds of information, and how to meaningfully participate in political discourse online.

“All of us are in the position of being broadcasters today,” he said. “And being in that position of a broadcaster comes with responsibility and obligation to engage in ethical political discourse.”

Disclosure: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc. 

Wilful blindness to Peterson’s antics verges on impunity

The erratic professor has incited harassment, threatened students, and vilified faculty — all while the university stands idle

Wilful blindness to Peterson’s antics verges on impunity

Twitter brings out the worst in us. This is especially true of Jordan Peterson, who took to the social media platform on October 26 to air his latest grievances in notably unorthodox fashion.

The U of T psychology professor was lamenting the postponement of a panel he was scheduled to partake in at Ryerson University titled “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses,” featuring notable figures like Gad Saad, Oren Amitay, and former Rebel Media reporter Faith Goldy. The panel was cancelled due to safety concerns, according to Ryerson, followed by organized protests by student and non-student activists alike.

Among the protesters were two activists, George Brown student Marco La Grotta and U of T graduate Christeen Elizabeth, who became the targets of online harassment after Peterson tweeted URL links to their personal Facebook profiles in retaliation for the panel’s cancellation. “Communists,” who “celebrated the shutdown of our Ryerson talk,” he captioned the tweets.

Some of his Twitter followers, a horde of over 245,000, quickly assumed mob mentality. “She is utterly insane, fck that dumb btch,” wrote one, replying to Peterson’s tweet. “The s*** truth Seekers have to deal with,” wrote another. The few users who questioned Peterson’s decision to link to the activists’ profiles were quickly dismissed as ‘concern trolls.’ Peterson’s tweets have received a total of 108 retweets as of press time.

As a result of this sudden exposure, both Elizabeth and La Grotta opened their Facebook inboxes to discover extensive hate mail and violent threats. “Im coming after your kids you bitch,” wrote one user to Elizabeth. “You deserve the bread line and the gulag,” wrote another. Following numerous messages and anti-semitic depictions sent his way, La Grotta temporarily deactivated his Facebook account.

Below: messages sent to La Grotta and Elizabeth’s Facebook inboxes following Peterson’s tweets.

The Varsity first reported on the incident two weeks ago.

Exposing the Facebook profiles of two student activists is, especially for a tenured professor earning a six-figure salary, a sad display of bullying and anti-intellectual behaviour. But it’s not the professor’s first endorsement of online harassment. More recently, Peterson announced his plans to launch a website that would allow students to identify left-leaning faculty members and “postmodern” course material, what U of T’s faculty association says has “created a climate of fear and intimidation” at the university.

Meanwhile, Peterson’s increasingly erratic behaviour has gone almost entirely overlooked by the university itself. Peterson has demonstrated a deteriorating ability to interact maturely with many of those he is paid to interact with — a pattern that should give any employer cause for concern in any profession — and yet time and time again, the university has cowered to him, leaving students and other faculty to bear the brunt of his antics.

The trouble began in September 2016 when Peterson first stepped into the ring with campus activists following his statements on Bill C-16 and his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns. Ever since, Peterson has found himself in numerous public yelling matches with students protesting his events or rallies.

While not necessarily the fault of Peterson alone, the exchanges have been anything but productive, serving only to foster animosity between the professor and swaths of the student body. Peterson has become so engulfed in ideological warfare that it’s unclear whether he could detach that from the necessary fairness required of a professional academic.

This inundation extends to Peterson’s interaction with student media as well. In October 2016, a staff writer at The Varsity reached out to Peterson for comment on a news story they were writing. The writer took all the necessary steps in assuring the due diligence of a reporter: they provided Peterson with the premise of their story, a sincere set of questions, and a deadline for when to respond.

Peterson, who normally declines to provide comment for The Varsity’s reporting, responded by threatening the writer, telling them they were “playing with serious fire” and that “reality [would] arrange itself so [they would] have serious cause to regret it” if they didn’t “play it straight and careful.”

It’s instances like these that make us question Peterson’s capacity for moral judgment, and how someone displaying such a lack thereof could be employed at a university where students and faculty are expected to work amicably with one another.

Peterson’s recent actions have only made us question this more. In July, he shared an article from InfoWars on Twitter, a publication known for actively spreading falsehoods and baseless conspiracy theories. In October, he railed on what he referred to as “female insanity,” arguing that men can’t control “crazy women” because men are not allowed to physically fight them. All the while, Peterson has been profiting greatly off his antics: in exchange for lectures and panel discussions on political correctness run amok, Peterson earns tens of thousands of dollars from Patreon subscriptions on a monthly basis. He offers video recordings of his lectures to his subscribers and promotes ‘anti-PC’ sticker-sets for the real keeners among them.

In an academic setting, it is detrimental to the pursuit of truth and understanding to embrace fake news, to use terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘insanity’ without an inkling of actual medical diagnosis, and to exploit divisive political issues in order to turn a profit. Moreover, it is antithetical to a safe and productive learning environment to threaten students and faculty, and to expose their personal information online when you disagree with them.

It is evident, too, that the university is unsure of how to handle this problem, and it’s not hard to see why. When the administration fails to intervene in Peterson-related controversies, they are scolded by his opposers on account of complacency. When the administration makes an effort to chide Peterson, as they did so delicately last year through an open letter asking him to respect students’ personal pronouns, Peterson cries oppression.

As a result, the administration has become like the parent at daycare who doesn’t know how to discipline their petulant child. When The Varsity asked the media relations office if the university believed Peterson’s actions toward the two students were appropriate behaviour for a professor, they declined to answer directly, replying that “universities are places where people can express opinions that are controversial and sometimes unsettling.”

This response was disappointing, to say the least. Peterson’s latest actions are not a matter of free speech. Of course free speech and free expression are imperative to a properly functioning liberal democracy. Of course these principles are paramount to a healthy learning experience in a university setting. But Peterson’s latest actions are a matter of harassment, and if the administration cannot distinguish this matter from a matter of free speech then students and faculty alike should be gravely concerned.

The administration must recognize that Peterson’s latest actions extend beyond the realm of ideological debate and into the realm of ideological aggression and, in turn, it must reconsider the values it holds in teachers. It must ask if it is appropriate for its employees to threaten students and incite harassment onto dissenters. It must ask if it is prudent to indulge a professor who has exchanged nuanced, intellectual thought for the inflamed rhetoric he knows will tickle the fancy of his rabid fanbase.

Should Peterson be made aware of this editorial, he will inevitably dismiss it as the rhetoric of the ‘neo-Marxist postmodernists’ that oppose him — overreacting, triggered leftists that need to sort themselves out. Many of his followers will mindlessly agree.

So, given the futility of confronting Peterson directly, our attention turns instead to the administration, whose role it is to reflect on the core values of the institution it leads, and to judge whether Peterson’s recent behaviour has a place at this university. Because in our opinion, it doesn’t.


Edgy thoughts 

The radical ideas of online fringe groups can make a real world impact

Edgy thoughts 

Hypertabs is The Varsity‘s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities. You can read the other articles included in this project here.

The Internet has the ability to affect nearly every facet of a student’s life. If you need to search for a library book, the catalogue is online. If you’re not sure how to cite a source, you can Google it. When you want to know when the next event for a student society is, Facebook is often to first place to check. Even during lectures and classes, students browse websites such as Twitter and reddit, reading the most recent updates on their favourite forums. They are part of different online communities, where they can interact with other users who share their interests and hobbies.

Online communities offer acceptance, support, and rapport. In January, reddit boasted over 19 million unique visitors, and hosted 800,000 individual, user created forums, or ‘subreddits’. Twitter has approximately 320 million monthly active users, while Tumblr has 555 million, and social media behemoth Facebook averages over 1.5 billion active monthly users; most students are members of at least one..

While these sites can provide easy entertainment through bad jokes, cute animal pictures, or inspiring stories, they are also home to more tumultuous communities. Fringe groups, especially those that advocate for radical social and political change, are very active  online. These types of communities — anti-vaxxers, Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) — can become talking points in the public sphere.

Many men who identify as part of the MRA movement believe that there are significant social and legal inequalities affecting men that are not being addressed by society, and particularly by fourth-wave feminism. Issues such as paternity rights and sexual assault are popular topics of discussion on MRA subreddits and Twitter accounts. The forums rarely contain original content; instead, users share newspaper articles which they then discuss. The men’s rights subreddit page (r/MensRights) has 115,676 unique readers, the largest of all mainstream men’s rights related subreddits. r/MensRights is in the top 400 subreddits based on number of subscribers, an accomplishment on a website as popular as reddit. MRA activists are also active on Twitter with several hashtags and accounts devoted to the cause.

Online MRA groups often the cause of controversy. r/RedPill is a subreddit that references The Matrix, where the protagonist takes a red pill to make himself aware of his true surroundings. The majority of its 142,000 subscribers are male, and unlike mainstream MRA groups, these subscribers create the majority of the content. Outrage and anger is expressed at posted personal anecdotes of men being scorned by women, and congratulations are offered for stories about subscribers’ successful sexual encounters. r/RedPill embraces the MRA philosophy of turning “beta” males into “alphas”, anti-feminism, and the techniques of so-called ‘pick up artists. There is a strong sense of community and loyalty in r/RedPill, which some have gone so far to describe as cult-like.

Recently, notorious pick-up artist Daryush Valizadeh, or “Roosh V”, made headlines by calling for the members of his website “Return of Kings” to meet up in person on Feb 2, 2016. While the meetings — one of which would have been held in Queen’s Park — were cancelled two days later, the plans garnered international media attention. This is merely one example of how the actions of a online fringe group can have real world ramifications. 

Online threats of violence against female U of T students were made last September. In an instance of online threats being put into action, in 2014 Elliot Rodger — an active member of the MRA community — committed a mass murder-suicide in California. Before committing the attack, he posted a video claiming that his motives were retribution against women who had rejected him sexually. These events don’t necessarily suggest that online communities are the cause behind such behaviour. However, they offer a unique outlet where radical thoughts can be expressed without judgment or fear of real repercussion. 

Some online communities even have enough clout to influence mainstream politics — anti-vaxxers are a good example. The movement, which began in 1998, believes that vaccines cause autism, among other problems, in young children. Proponents of the “Vaccine Resistance Movement” congregate on Facebook pages and use Twitter to target politicians and lobbyists that are pro-vaccine. They base their beliefs on a now debunked scientific study on the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine by a British physician who lost his medical license due to the study. It is now believed that his findings were a correlation, not causation, as signs of autism typically emerge around the same time the MMR vaccine is administered.

While any immunology student studying in Gerstein can tell you that avoiding vaccines can cause serious problems, it wasn’t until last year when a measles outbreak in the United States reinvigorated the public conversation on anti-vaccine philosophy. As such, California lawmakers have now passed legislation preventing parents from citing “personal beliefs” as a reason for not vaccinating their child. It is now mandatory for all children in public schools to be vaccinated. This is a way of preventing the spread of measles and other viruses to not only children, but also to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Even Rand Paul, member of the US Senate and trained physician, has come out against vaccines, but has since become pro-vaccine due to backlash.

As we spend more and more of our time online, we have to be critical with the content of what we choose to engage with. Fringe ideas are making their way to the forefront of our lives with the click of a button. While many of them may be harmless, it’s been proven that radical online thought can incite real world danger.