OTTAWA–Should political parties hold back dirt on their rivals if that information came from a hacked source?
Canada’s elections chief wants to start that conversation. Speaking to MPs on Thursday, Stéphane Perrault said he plans to meet with federal parties to discuss how they can help ensure the integrity of the 2019 election.
“What happens if a party receives a tantalizing offer about hacked information (about) an adversary party? Are they going to jump on that offer or are they going to agree not to share it?” Perrault said.
“We have to work with parties and what they can do, because we all have a shared interest in the integrity of the electoral process.”
Perrault was speaking to the House of Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee, which has spent months examining the fallout from Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. The study has often strayed from the specifics of how 87 million Facebook users’ data was purloined for political manipulation schemes to more general threats facing Canada’s next general election.
For almost a decade, Perrault said, the agency has had a team assessing threats to the integrity of federal elections. The past few years has likely kept them busy, as the United States has been slowly unravelling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power.
It may seem unlikely that Canada’s partisans would hold back information that could damage their rivals, especially with both the Liberals and Conservatives promising a bitter electoral battle next year.
But Elizabeth Dubois, a University of Ottawa professor who researches media manipulation and political uses of social media, said it’s in the parties’ self-interests to do so.
“If there are instances where some data has been collected unfairly or illegally, and then been kind of offered up as a political playing chip, there’s good reason to say we want to make sure that that’s not going to happen and that we have a good procedure in place to deal with it,” Dubois said.
“Political parties, I think, have this responsibility from the perspective of keeping a strong democracy and wanting to make sure the kinds of inputs to our political system are fair ones.”
Dubois said the time to address the issue is now, because if parties are making case-by-case determinations in the heat of a campaign, mistakes will be made.
But it’s not just politicians or government agencies that have a role to play. News outlets and journalists can be the delivery system for influence and misinformation campaigns.
In some respects, that’s nothing new. Partisan researchers often approach media organizations, including the Toronto Star, with news tips or dirt about their opponents. Leaking damaging material on opponents to the news media is a tried and tested tactic for operatives of all political stripes.
“What’s new is the scale of personal data that’s possible, and the challenge of how you actually figure out whether or not that data is data that should be used from an ethical perspective,” Dubois said.
“We’re not going to have clear answers all the time. Journalists are going to face this, politicians are going to face this. The best we can do is to come up with a bit of a game plan ahead of the actual election so we can know what the appropriate procedure is.”
The Star publishes its journalistic standards guide publicly online. The rules include not giving anonymity to people attacking individuals or institutions, as well a requirement to attribute material to its source. When the use of confidential sources is required, journalists must discuss the matter with their editor or, in some cases, the editor-in-chief.
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier