Ryerson study shows only 28 percent of Canadians trust social media in an age when fake news can swing an election   
Photos by Rick Drennan/Flickr-Clarissa Peterson/Ryerson University

Ryerson study shows only 28 percent of Canadians trust social media in an age when fake news can swing an election   

Change, of course, is inevitable.

But we need to parcel this word out and focus in on the technology that now defines it, in our modern, hyper-revolving world.

In chronological order, most relevant depending on your age:

Remember typewriters?



So gone.

Rotary phones?

Gone (unless you’re a hipster).

Floppy disks?


Pagers and faxes?

Consigned to a box in your basement’s crawlspace.




Barely hanging on.


In constant comeback.

Bricks and mortar?

Crumbling in the internet ether.

Personal interaction?

Ha! (Sorry honey, what did you say, Taylor just tweeted a diary entry?)

Real news?

Ah, now that’s a tricky one.

As the latest Canadian federal election kicks off this week, Google, the most important player ahead of the October 21 vote, has completed its transformation from a noun to a verb.

We have more power in our cellphone than a NASA scientist did while working in the age of lunar exploration. Google isn’t just the portal for all this computational magnificence, it has become the planet on which we gaze through our shiny, mesmerizing screens.

In distant times, names like Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, Edison and Einstein propelled humanity forward.

Their modern-day equivalents are not so well known: Don Estridge (father of the PC), Vint Cerf (Internet pioneer), and Shigeru Miyamoto (video gaming guru).

The need for speed and technological change, driven by the platforms created by these cyber-pioneers, has left many of us breathless, and it shows no signs of slowing.

The medium may be the message, but the user is the content. In a world where the user is being shaped by the technology that moulds them from a young age, the content of their lives, their relationships, desires and hopes are centred on a very specific sense of fulfilment, programmed into their minds with remarkable code-writing and algorithmic proficiency. The engineers of this human condition are our world’s real thought leaders. They are the modern rock stars whose art leaves us staring into our tiny hand-held portals, defining our needs and curiosities. Of course, while we are consumed deeper into this reality from our side of the window, they remain hidden behind theirs, with screens filled by glowing lines of green characters that build our DNA.

This scary, Matrix-world of digital design and its enveloping influence offers up equal portions of opportunity and caution, and both were on the minds of many on Wednesday when the governor general of Canada brought down the writ and set in motion the next federal election, October 21.

At about the same time, a seminar was beginning in the atrium at city hall in Brampton, called Elections Under Threat, with U.K. digital strategist Sam Jeffers behind the mic as keynote speaker.

Sam Jeffers and Charles Finlay in the Q&A session at Brampton City Hall on Wednesday

His address was followed by a fireside chat (minus the fireside) between him and Charles Finlay, executive director of Ryerson University’s Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst located in the inner sanctum of city hall and scheduled to hold its official opening in December.

Ahead of our October election, the timing for this event couldn’t be more prescient as democracies around the world are grappling with fake news, misinformation and the security of our elections from foreign and domestic interference. All happening in an age when the digital domain draws us deeper into its convincing reality.

Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst and Ryerson Leadership Lab have partnered to bring Visiting Global Fellow Jeffers to speak to the emerging threats to the democratic system and what can be done to rebuild security and trust in digital public spaces and democracy.

Jeffers is co-founder of Who Targets Me, a worldwide effort to increase the transparency and accountability of political advertising on social media.

The graduate of Harvard Kennedy School is an experienced digital strategist who ran campaigns across Europe as managing director of Blue State Digital, an agency that helped elect Barack Obama U.S. president in 2008 and 2012. He currently consults an eclectic client list that includes the City of London, the UK’s largest union, Unilever, Mazda, Tate Gallery, British Museum, and the Manchester City Football Club, and Google.

Who Targets Me is a world-wide effort to increase transparency and accountability of political advertising online.    

The good-natured Jeffers, who would later conduct a one-on-one interview with The Pointer, settled behind the microphone to tell those gathered in the atrium that while an election is an exciting time, there are plenty of reasons to worry. He opened with a joke, saying the internet started with three websites (all terrible), and then, like an exploding star, sent out millions of other websites which served every interest and niche humanity could conjure up. But now, we are basically back to three (which are still terrible).

As the big companies have grown in stature and financial heft (Facebook, Google, Twitter), we have to “live by the choice they make, enjoy the benefits they bring, and suffer the consequences of their mistakes – including what that means for democracies,” he says.

That’s where Who Targets Me clicks in. Jeffers says it “uses small tech to take on big tech.”

His team of two expands to many when elections are called. The goal is to increase the transparency of political campaigns on the internet. Its first product – which has been up for a couple of years – is a browser extension that people can install to monitor the political Facebook ads they’re targeted with. Thirty thousand people in 100 countries and 20 languages have taken part. By creating an anonymous dataset of political advertising that can be used to increase transparency and accountability for political advertising in real time, it is used for research into use and effects, and sets direction for policy.

Jeffers’ company is working on elections in Poland, Israel, Austria, the UK and yes, Canada. The calls from other countries keeps the pace of work ratcheting up.

Jeffers built software because political ads on Facebook are growing exponentially. In the UK, Facebook political ad spending trebled between 2015 and ’17, which he suspects could double or treble again. The U.S. will see upwards of $3 billion (that’s with a B) over the next 14 months, up from a mere few hundred million in ’16.

Jeffers says Who Targets Me was built because of the weirdness of recent election results that displayed a pattern: polls that led to confidence that the electorate is moving in a certain direction, and then boom, the election and a major surprise. David Cameron’s majority win in 2015 wasn’t reflected in the polls heading into election day. Then the Brexit vote went the opposite direction from the polling. Donald Trump’s win came from left field.

Since then, the winners have had their stories written, and the question is how their data operations worked?

Is it possible that Facebook, the world’s largest media conglomerate, could have tipped the balance in their favour with the proliferation of politically charged cyber ads?

Jeffers says if you don’t believe this, Ed Miliband would be the UK prime minister today, Brexit would not have gone to a vote, the U.S. would still be in the Paris Climate Accord, and Hilary Clinton would now be running for re-election. As for Justin Trudeau, that cyber-story is yet to be written. There will surely be coders and torqued-up copy writers working overtime in the next few weeks, trying to sway voters here, not with facts but alt-facts.

Jeffers says there are more factors than cyber ads influencing the outcome: public mood, suitability of the candidates (leaders), their track records, and the simplicity or resonance of their message. Some elections simply aren’t close, whatever the political advertising.

But in modern elections, data is becoming king, and studying cyber advertising is playing an increasing role. Looking at the Canadian election, Jeffers says cyber will matter, but the question is how much?

The studies on the effect of political Facebook advertising are surprisingly scant, but it can be used by campaigns to raise money, urge users to attend events, and target prospective voters for surveying key issues. So, the policy of the future might not arise out of smart, healthy decisions for us and our planet, but rather from the public opinions and attitudes that can not only be gauged by advanced cyber surveying methods and analysis of online behaviour, but can also be manipulated and shaped by the skillful form of content creation being done in bot-farms and hidden hives where secret misinformation strategies are hatched.

Here’s how it works.

The economy takes a downturn in Country A. Party B, not in power, can’t formulate a clear, doable strategy to turn things around. It engages covert entities to convince the public that foreigners, not poor economic policy, are the problem. An extremely sophisticated campaign promoting fake news, fake events, fake groups, complete with highly believable data and statistics and some revisionist history, even new websites that look like real journalism, is blasted out onto all sorts of digital content platforms. And voila, harmless attitudes about the negative impacts of growing income disparity are weaponized into the scapegoating of “others”.

Getting to the bottom of this, to prevent our politics and governance from falling prey to people like Donald Trump who will stop at nothing to gain and hold power, is largely up to the behemoth online platforms that shape our modern world.  

The social media giants have not been forthcoming to allow researchers like Jeffers to work with their datasets. He speculates that Facebook might already know its ads help do things like raise money or volunteers for certain interests, but they don’t really impact vote share, the company claims. Or, it could be the opposite – they do know they’re having a significant effect. Whatever the answer, researchers need the data, the DNA of the entire network, to figure it all out.

Jeffers talked about how he monitors campaigns and gave the crowd a step-by-step look at his work plan. First, he examines Facebook’s Ad Library to see who’s running what and whether it’s worthy of analysis or comment. The firm checks ad spending, who’s running a lot of ads, how much they are spending, how many people are they reaching for their money, and what types of people are seeing the ads. His firm rounds back to check its own data, which demographics and ridings are targeted, and asks how people are reading the ads. They look at trends, patterns, and what it all means. They report the info themselves or give it to media organizations to tell stories. “Our goal is to normalize the coverage of digital campaigns,” he says. “Whereas traditional political journalism rides the campaign bus, follow candidates and hear their stump speeches, we’re doing the digital side of that, focusing on the what, who, where, why, and how much of political advertising.”

It’s all about increasing the transparency of mainstream campaigning.

Jeffers says cybersecurity is an “adversarial environment where each of your moves forces a countermove from your opponent.”

Facebooks’ verification processes for advertisers (to validate who they say they are, and do they have the legal right to run political ads), is a continuing process. If the wormhole to St. Petersburg is closed, it doesn’t end the possibility of foreign influence in our democracies, says Jeffers, referring to the last U.S. presidential election which featured Russian interference, and an assist to the Trump team. The Italian example of Matteo Salvini’s Lega Party mired in scandal about money received at the Kremlin’s direction, is a warning that scrutiny is now needed more than ever.

Facebook doesn’t use terms like astroturfing or disinformation, but “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The term was of interest to Finlay, of Ryerson’s Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst, who led the fireside Q&A afterwards. He asked a series of questions and took many from the audience, most asking how we can protect the process.

Left to right: Charles Finlay, Sam Jeffers and Sam Andrey, director policy and research with the Ryerson Leadership Lab

The digital public square is riddled with problems, including bots, harassment of political figures and journalists, closed Facebook groups, Discord servers, 4Chan or 8Chan, radicalized YouTube algorithms, or other under-researched and opaque things that likely will have some effect on the quality of campaigns in the future.

Jeffers says Facebook has taken steps with its ad archive, while Twitter and Google are also doing a little. But it’s far from uniform or enough. Facebook stores ads for seven years but remains highly protective of their connections, while Twitter does for only seven days. He thinks Google’s ad library is a “horrible mess.”

The way data is used to identify and target specific groups, political advertisers, and specific messages, is still “mostly invisible.” The need for more standardization to fight bad actors and collaborate the approach, is much needed, and that means more transparency. What Jeffers doesn’t want to see is big companies coming up with their own solutions behind closed doors. He suggests a “global observatory of political advertising which can evaluate practices, make regulatory recommendations and share data responsibly with researchers to help tackle the growing global problem.”

Society and academia should join the fight, too. In this post-truth age, the need to understand the information environment is crucial. Government must also have a policy response, says Jeffers. They have to identify harm, research the impact of the harm, ponder the trade-offs in addressing it (the risk of censorship or excluding certain voices from the debate), then legislate, monitor and enforce.

He says Canada is moving down that path and is one of the first countries to implement new rules for how platforms and campaigns can act. A “normative” response is also needed especially in light of this crisis in democracy.

Says Jeffers: “If we are to hold to the idea that the internet and social media are great democratizing forces when it comes to access to information, (public visibility for those outside power circles) and people finding their voice, then we have to also start thinking about how we can remodel democracy, in order that it withstands the stresses it’s being placed under.”

Samuel Schwartz, former managing partner DLA Piper, an international law firm in 40 countries, now with the Strategy Law Group, based in Toronto, was an interested spectator, and spoke to The Pointer before Jeffers began his talk.

Being a strategic advisor with six boards and businesses, he says privacy issues and cyber security are huge issues for the entire society. As a grandfather of seven, it’s all about the educational sphere, he says. The universities, law schools,  academic boards and governmental education bodies, have to honour their fiduciary duty to the students, clients, and society to find solutions to the potential cyber chaos that comes with an unchecked internet. He believes electoral protection to safeguard our democracy, stems from a broader commitment to data and information ethics.

“We have to sleep with one eye open. I want to see a written and practical commitment to cyber security – where is data to be stored, what control do people have over their own data, what right does anyone have to mental health records, for example.” He wants to make sure personal information remains private, that it remains between a person and an employer, or a doctor and his patient.  

He also understands that people need to know if their elections are legit. “It has to come in an answer that each one of us can understand,” he says. “I hope this talk builds trust in digital public spaces and democracy.”

Jeffers rolled out a series of questions that need to be answered, including:

How can we stop political campaigns using the internet to break the law and suffer no consequences?

How can we turn back the tide on campaigns that seek only to identify and influence small groups of voters, rather than the entire public?

How do we manage public debate when it takes place on closed, private platforms?

How can we resolve big issues over years when the internet demands hot-takes in seconds?

How do we really want democracy to work?

The bygone days when elections were a languid walk-up and there were no online worries about attack ads based on misinformation, has been replaced by targeted cyber ads, using questionable data, that either encourage voters to fill in a particular ballot checkbox, or act as a suppressant.

Has the democratic process been compromised by a cyber world controlled by interests with no conscious, and run by team’s with only one goal in mind: control?

When a foul-mouthed former reality TV star, with an Access Hollywood tape describing his serial sexual abuse on his resume, actually won, the world changed overnight. Donald Trump’s win happened partly because of a well-directed cyber propaganda campaign and a big assist from Russian troll farms. Brexit has entered our political lexicon because cyber advertising played a part in that vote, too.

Jeffers has probably read Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story, or his thought-provoking follow up book: NEXT – The Future Just Happened. We are now reaping the whirlwind from social media platforms making billions running political cyber ads that have floated virtually unchecked for years.

This has all created unease in the public realm, and even worries political wonks who study this stuff. Says Jeffers: “Yes, I worry a lot. We are losing faith in the quality of information being put in front of us. It’s hard to separate truth from fiction. It’s hard to pull the truth out from that mess.”

He explained that 95 percent of what we see or hear is recognizable. It’s the stuff around the edges that is the major cause for concern.

It’s ironic that one of the fastest growing groups (the elderly) are moving into the cyber world but are one of the most vulnerable to misreading what is on their platforms. The danger is that they vote more than any other demographic and might not understand the nuances of the internet.  

The worldwide web has changed democracy, and the more malleable can be targeted during campaigns. How the big firms and governments handle this is a problem for now, and going forward. Billions are being spent, and our politics is changing as fast as the technology that is influencing it.

Elections have been influenced by technology for years, from the first printing press to radio broadcasts, and a post-war world when TV changed the very political landscape. Those TV ads are still around, but more are moving online, and cyber ads are targeted and effective. Outright fake news can also reshape perception of an issue. We can only speculate on what will happen over the next five years, as technological changes come in speeded-up time, says Jeffers.

Is he optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

He hesitated and couldn’t really answer that question in the fireside chat.

How could he? No one really knows where all this technology is taking us.

On Friday, Ryerson Leadership Lab launched its Rebuilding the Public Square (click here) project that investigates how Canadians are consuming news and politics online, offering potential solutions to guide policy-making, and gives us the tools needed to rebuild trust in the digital public square. It also reveals the results from a survey of 3,000 Canadians in August on digital news literacy, its effects on political behaviours, and attitudes toward potential policy solutions –  timely information given this week’s federal election call. It will also be launching Who Targets Me (click here) in Canada and its partnership with Jeffers, plus Vox Pop Labs (click here) will answer pressing questions on digital political advertising in Canada throughout the federal election campaign. 

Here are some key findings of the study:

  • 36 percent of Canadians and 47 percent of those aged 18-44 check Facebook everyday;
  • About half of Canadians “Like” news and political posts on social media at least once a week and 30 percent share such content;
  • People who place themselves on the left or right ends of the political spectrum consume considerably more political news online than those at or close to the middle, who tend to rely on TV and newspapers/news websites;
  • Just under half of Canadians report seeing false information or deliberately divisive content at least once a week online, with those who use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube reporting even more frequent exposure to such content, including half who see hate speech at least weekly;
  • Three quarters of Canadians believe online/social media accounts spreading disinformation and hate should be deleted in a timely manner;
  • Social media companies are among the least trusted in terms of protecting public interests, with only 28 percent of Canadians surveyed saying they trust platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – less than oil companies, banks, telecommunications providers and news media;
  • 60 percent of Canadians believe the government should intervene and direct social media companies to fix the problems they created with our political system.

Cybersecure Catalyst is a new national centre for innovation and collaboration in cybersecurity, and will be based in city hall in Brampton. It officially opens in December. It is an industry focused collaborator with governments and other educational institutions to help tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities in the rapidly growing cybersecurity sector. It will upskill cybersecurity personnel and train new workers; help cybersecurity businesses scale up to reach international markets; support applied research and development partnerships between universities and the private sector; and help teach private citizens and small businesses about cyber risks.

Finlay says Ryerson is committed to Brampton and is eager to “contribute to the life of the community.” He says Wednesday’s event would be the first of many discussions, and the Leadership Labs “hope to create a new generation of change makers, with the goal of building a trustworthy and inclusive society.”

Visit the website here for more information.

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