It’s common knowledge that automated bots impacted the results of the 2016 US Presidential elections. At Peer, we wanted to know if this would likewise affect the results of the Canadian federal election.
After months-long monitoring, here’s our observations.
Something was fishy about the People’s Party of Canada
We knew something was amiss when far-right Reddit community r/metacanada was suddenly overcome with support for Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada (PPC).
Though a small community by Reddit standards, r/metacanada has long links with Internet troll communities on 4chan and 8chan. It is a known base for far-right organizing. From r/metacanada, trolls strategize ways to disrupt conversation about Canada on social media.
Disrupt it, they did! During the Canadian English leader’s debates, there was a live chat on YouTube. Bots spammed “Vote PPC!” in the sidebar.
On Twitter, the effect of PPC-supporting bots was more drastic. Twitter was inundated by “copy tweets,” identical messages tweeted from hundreds of newly registered accounts. Casual Twitter polls showed outsized support for the PPC. This was despite the PPC never polling above 3% in legitimate polls. As Urban Halifax points out, this is possible because Twitter’s API is easy to exploit. API abuse is a result of a centralized network infrastructure that is nearly impossible to moderate effectively.
So did bots impact Canadian election results? No. As it turns out, fake support doesn’t translate to real support. Leader Maxime Bernier failed to retain his seat. The PPC didn’t elect a single candidate.
But that doesn’t mean the bots gave up. Instead, they immediately changed tactics.
Russia and #Wexit
On the day of the election, before results were even tabulated, Russian state-owned Sputnik News published an article entitled Birth of the Republic of Western Canada is a Cry of Our Heart.
As CTV News reported, bot activity utilizing hashtag #wexit immediately increased on Twitter after this Sputnik News article was published. It became the #1 trending Twitter topic.
According to our own observations, #wexit bots were newly registered accounts, featuring grainy profile pics of Western Canada stereotypes (white men smoking cigarettes, driving pick-up trucks, wearing cowboy hats), and displaying little knowledge of Canadian culture and politics when we responded to them.
Facebook also saw a rise in bot activity for #wexit. As the National Post reports, membership on the VoteWexit Facebook page grew from 2,000 members on election day to 160,000 on Tuesday afternoon.
Was growth due to bots? Considering that Facebook usage has been down 27% since 2017, count us skeptical that Alberta (population 4,371,316) would muster an instantaneous response of that magnitude. The nature of Facebook is that communication is asynchronous.
Just who benefits from this bot activity? Alongside Russia, the fringe Wexit Alberta party, which still lacks signatures required for party registration. According to their last update, Facebook has placed limits on their page due to “activities… that don’t comply with Facebook policies”.
It’s apparent. Russia is utilizing bots to increase the visibility of fringe ideas. It’s their attempt to sow disunity amongst Canadians.
What can be done about bots?
The reason bots are effective on Twitter and Facebook is because those social networks are centralized. They also require minimal verification that a human is operating it. If social media required a direct connection between human beings instead of an algorithmic interloper, the effectiveness of a bot network would be obliterated.
This is why we need to decentralize social media.
At Peer, we believe humans should have a direct connection with each other on social media. That’s why we’re engineering methods for users to be sure about the people we connect with. We call this concept Direct Social.
If humanity can be verified on social media — without need of tracking or surveillance — the integrity of our elections will be intact. Bots will be stopped in their tracks.
Bots must not compromise democracy!