A highly targeted, often negative, shift to online marketing and social media is ushering Canadian politics into a dark new era.
At the heart of the rhetoric are sweeping social media campaigns by the country’s major political parties — and third-party groups seeking to target and divide the population.
According to information from Facebook Ads LibraryCanada’s political parties spend millions on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.
The Liberals account for more than half of that spending and kicked it into high gear over the past week as polls continue to suggest a tight end on Election Day. The party paid for more than 10,000 advertisements in the 90 days leading up to September 6.
That’s about $1.8 million for the Liberal site and another $1 million for Trudeau’s site.
“We believe in meeting Canadians where they are, and more and more of our lives have moved online, especially in the past year,” the Liberal Party spokesperson said. , Alex Deslongchamps.
Conservatives spent significantly less this election, with the Conservative page doling out around $865,000 over the 90-day period on 650 ads, and another $65,000 on 170 ads for party leader Erin O’Toole.
The NDP is not far behind, spending nearly $660,000 on 500 ads, and another $250,000 on around 230 ads for its leader Jagmeet Singh.
It is one of the largest publicity campaigns in the party’s history during an election.
“The strategy is a mix of traditional advertising, digital and social media along with innovative new techniques across the country to help Canadians learn more about Jagmeet’s NDP and our plan to make life more affordable and fair. said NDP spokeswoman Emily Robinson.
“Digitally, we’re pushing the envelope with all-new online engagement tools that aim to build community and promote grassroots organizing.”
But the types of ads that run on Facebook — many of which are started by third-party groups with clear goals — rarely create a community, said Andrea Perrella, professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. Instead, the campaigns create “barbaric” political discourse.
It happened in the last provincial election in Ontario, he said, with multiple campaigns aimed at smashing the image of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne. The result? A landslide landslide victory for Doug Ford’s Conservative Party and a near annihilation of the Liberals at Queen’s Park.
These types of attacks continued through 2021, he said, this time primarily against Trudeau.
“It’s toxic,” he said. “It doesn’t produce healthy, democratic deliberation, it just creates a lot of rage. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in the streets right now, a lot of rage.
Not everything can be attributed to social media, he said, but there’s no denying that many of these people get their information online.
And with targeted algorithms based on delivering content and ads that a user is likely to click on, he said, this has very dangerous consequences for the political realm.
It hardens positions and makes it harder for people to consider the merits of opposing points of view simply because they are never subject to them.
What does this look like in practice? Imagine an ad run by the Conservatives criticizing Trudeau. Someone likes the post and then gets bombarded by subsequent conservative posts as well as the various third party groups with anti-Trudeau sentiments.
The more they fall down the rabbit hole, Perrella explained, the harder they become in their position.
And the current regulations do not offer much to control this.
The current definition of political advertising is either promoting a candidate or party or opposing another candidate or party during the election period, Elections Canada spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier said.
Under the Canada Elections Act, there is a provision prohibiting the intentional publication of false and misleading statements.
The problem, Perrella said, is that the online world goes beyond words. There are images, memes, and GIFs that can easily distort truths.
“People are drawn to online media because of images and memes. If they rely on this to guide their political decisions, then they are using a highly toxic form of political communication designed specifically to manipulate.
It’s a situation with no clear answer or way forward, and any attempt to overhaul the current leadership will likely be met with calls for free speech and political expression, Perrella said.
But it’s a problem that is likely to get worse, not better, if he continues down this path.
“It seems like we’re in a new world of political communication that calls for a new set of regulations to optimize accurate content and minimize manipulative elements,” he said.