The agency that oversees provincial elections wants the NDP government to take steps to prevent a Donald Trump-style disinformation campaign aimed at overturning election results.
In its wish-list for lawmakers published May 30, Elections BC said it needs to be better-equipped to regulate digital campaigning and mitigate risks of cyber threats in order to guard electoral integrity. The agency had already red-flagged potential cyber threats in a 2020 report, but chief electoral officer Anton Boegman found the landscape is rapidly evolving and recommended new restrictions against deliberate false statements about election results.
“Legislators would need to craft these restrictions in such a way that they do not limit legitimate activities established in the Election Act, such as requesting recount on the basis of an incorrect ballot account,” the report said. “Restrictions should exempt satirical expression, and could also be limited to false statements that were knowingly made with malicious intent.”
Trump’s false claims of voter fraud against his presidential re-election campaign led to the Jan. 6, 2020 riot at the U.S. Capitol and the unsuccessful attempt by his supporters to prevent confirmation of Joe Biden’s legitimate victory.
The Recommendations for Legislative Change report also emphasized the challenge of removing and destroying non-compliant election advertising on digital platforms.
“There is currently no impact on a platform should they fail to act in a timely fashion. Given the size and economic power of the major online platforms, the current penalties in the Act are insufficient to ensure digital platform compliance,” it said.
Though the report does not specifically mention it by name, one of the most-prominent digital platforms used to influence B.C. voters is the Beijing-censored social media and payment app WeChat. Disinformation on WeChat during the 2021 federal election swayed voters in Richmond against Conservative incumbent Kenny Chiu, after he had proposed foreign government agents register before trying to influence government decisions.
The Elections BC report suggests empowering the chief electrical officer with the authority to ban advertisers from sponsoring election ads on certain uncooperative platforms.
“This would help address the risk of platforms outside of Canada refusing to abide by B.C.’s election advertising rules (by prohibiting political participants from placing ads on any such platform),” said the report. “Such prohibitions could apply to digital and traditional media platforms that repeatedly publish non-compliant advertising and fail to take appropriate steps.”
The report’s main recommendations include improvements to vote-by-mail and to update adjudication for write-in ballots. It also suggests voters be allowed to write the name of a party leader on a write-in ballot, even if the party leader is not running in their constituency. Write-in ballots currently allow only the name of a local candidate or the name of a party running a candidate in a voter’s district.
Before the 2021 federal election, the federal Communications Security Establishment warned that Canadian voters were likely to encounter some form of foreign cyber interference before and during the election.
During Alberta’s 2021 civic elections and provincial referendum, social media posts impersonating the province’s election agency appear to have spread false information that was intended to harm the agency’s credibility.
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