Report: Canada must be proactive about policies that target political bots

A new report led by a professor from the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship suggests that bots could be creating the conditions for a “voter suppression campaign” in Canada.

The research team, led by Elizabeth Dubois from the University of Ottawa and Fenwick McKelvey from Concordia University, included 12 researchers across nine countries who interviewed 65 experts, and analyzed tens of millions posts on seven different social media platforms during scores of elections, political crises, and national security incidents.

The study identified four types of bots, and the risks and positives associated with them: Amplifiers, which game digital systems to promote a message or channel; dampeners, which suppress and remove information online; transparency bots, which disclose information to the public; and servant bots that maintain services and infrastructures.

The report says that dampeners have actively targeted a number of Canadian political websites and institutions, citing the example of a cyberattack preventing access to online voting for the NDP during its 2012 leadership race. During the 2017 provincial election in British Columbia, social media analytics firm MentionMapp found an amplifier bot targeted the incumbent Christy Clark of the Liberal Party with accusations of corruption, with the goal of amplifying the bot account’s tweets so that humans would interact with them.

However, the research team was optimistic about the Canadian landscape. “We find that bots have, so far, had limited influence on Canadian politics. That news alone offers a corrective to deeper international fears about a public sphere that has failed the Turing test,” the report reads. “When Canadians discuss bots, they are largely treated as a novelty: a journalistic experiment, a one-off hack or a blip on the electoral radar. But Canadians risk trivializing an important debate about the future of its democracy. The limited influence of bots is probably a temporary phenomenon.”

While optimistic, the team urged the Canadian government to take Canadian law and bots into account.

“Dampeners could be programmed to spread messages that violate libel law…simply retweeting a story or sharing a hyperlink likely would not count as publishing and thereby not be considered libel. If found to be guilty of committing libel, a bot’s creator could be forced to pay damages.”

Conversely, amplifiers could be used as a tool for harassment. “An amplifier bot’s promotional nature raises another set of questions. Amplifier bots might break the law if they ramp up commercial or political messages. The former act chiefly concerns the Canadian Anti-Spam Law (CASL) whereas the latter might violate the Elections Act.”

Overall, the report says that bots could make Canadian elections the target of hackers, and notes that the 2011 robocalling scandal could provide one foundation for proactive legislation. That scandal led the government to establish the Voter Contact Registry (VCR), which is managed by the CRTC and governs callers and calling services.

Read the full report here.

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang is BetaKit's News Editor.