Article 6 min

Leveraging technology to protect the future of online democracy

Leveraging technology to protect-the-future of online democracy
Leveraging technology to protect-the-future of online democracy

Around the world — from American elections to Brexit — foreign influencers, trolls and bots are doing their level best to interfere with and impact the results of political campaigns. Nowhere is this influence more pervasive and dangerous than on social media platforms. As citizens increasingly turn to online sources for their news and content, we’ve seen firsthand these platforms becoming popular targets for disinformation campaigns orchestrated by bad actors seeking to influence elections across the world.

Canada is not immune to these threats, and hot on the heels of our federal election, the debate around how we can best prevent election tampering is still pertinent. In the U.S., much accountability for the election tampering in 2016 fell on social media platforms, which failed to adequately filter out the fake news from legitimate content and sources (including news and ads).

Despite the Government of Canada imposing new requirements on advertisers to crack down on disinformation, Canada saw a slew of false memes and fake bots participating in online election discussions during the 40-day campaign process. To avoid a similar fate in future elections, we can embrace new technologies created with the sole purpose of verifying the identities of online users and advertisers to create a safer, more transparent and more engaged democracy.

New political ad requirements in Canada

To increase transparency around online political advertisements, companies wanting to advertise around social issues, elections and politics were required to register such ads on an accessible digital registry that clearly identified who paid for and placed the ad. Social networks not compliant with the new ad registry requirements risked an administrative fine from the Commissioner of Canada Elections.

These new requirements put the onus on the social media platforms, as opposed to the advertisers themselves, to implement efficient solutions to identify bad actors and threats that could potentially tamper with election results if not closely monitored.

In response to these new requirements, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo released a series of documents outlining the need for social media companies to take additional steps and legislation to regulate the actions of social platforms in response to disinformation online.

Going further to ensure transparency

A new term has begun to take hold among online businesses facing threats of fraud: identity verification, which describes methods using tech to accurately verify the identities of people doing business online. These new solutions help remove anonymity and give organizations the tools to increase trust online through electronic identity verification.

In Canada, social giants are currently not required to use tools or measures to identify and remove bad actors who are spreading disinformation online during elections. Government of Canada should be proactive and mandate social platforms take early steps to prevent election tampering by requiring them to verify the identities of advertisers before they are permitted to post political ads. The newly imposed regulations required companies to document advertising through a public database — policing malicious social content only after it is released.

This year’s election saw online tactics and advertisements that amplified the spread of disinformation campaigns. While an investigation lead by Canada’s National Observer showed that the influence of fake memes, content and conspiracies were more partisan, they very likely could have affected voter opinions come election day.  We can no longer underestimate the influence that social networks and unidentified users have on our democratic process.

We know that with anonymity comes a lack of accountability for those engaging in these conversations to ensure information is accurate. Enforcing this first step will create a better experience for those engaging online; trust will be restored and users can now be reassured those participating in the democratic process are properly verified.

Any rule that potentially hampers free speech needs careful consideration and clear boundaries around the use and dissemination of identity information. The laws would be intended to stop the proliferation of propaganda from bots and bad actors, not the political opinions of real people with a vested interest. ID information would require strict controls and only be shared with court order.

Leveraging tech for good

More than ever before, these platforms play a critical role in protecting the integrity of elections. Identity proofing verifies the identities and locations of citizens; they not only confirm an individual’s right to participate in the democratic process, but also protect politicians and their parties. Identity verification uses secure data points to verify identities instantly, making it difficult for fake accounts and bots to steal identities and post fake content on forums and online discussions.

While Canada’s new registration requirements are a step in the right direction, they do little to prevent malicious acts committed by those misrepresenting themselves and creating fake ads or content to sway perceptions. Today, with only a click of a button, fake content can be seen by millions, if not billions, of people worldwide in a matter of minutes. Citizens deserve peace of mind that the content they view on social platforms is real, informative and accurate. We need to leverage advanced technology solutions to stay one step ahead of these bad actors who are finding weaknesses in our platforms. Technology has long been their weapon of choice and it’s about time we make it ours to help protect and safeguard democracy, creating a more transparent environment for online discussions and news.

By authenticating the identities of online users and advertisers, online platforms can better facilitate online interactions and make way for a new, digital democracy and even pave the way for online voting. If our system allowed those with a digital ID to participate in or voting system, we could allow more to participate.

Canada can take a stronger stance against election tampering by mandating strong digital ID verification systems before allowing ads to run or users to engage in political content instead of trying to remove disinformation after the fact. It’s time for a more open, transparent and hopefully, authentic society where trust is at the forefront of online content.