It seems like a non-job, or a stepping stone to real responsibility. Canada’s Minister for Democratic Reform traditionally has had an easy brief: making elections run on time, and considering electoral reform (then deciding against it).
But all that changed for Minister Karina Gould when she was appointed to the job in January 2017. “It was on the heels of the US Presidential Election, and that was the first time the western world kind of understood that there was a threat to our democratic institutions from foreign cyber interference,” she explains.
Now she works with national intelligence agencies to ensure that Canada’s democracy is decided by Canadians. On the sidelines of the Open Government Partnership Summit in Ottawa, she shared her approach to this task, and how she plans to hold the big tech platforms responsible for what they publish.
Elections under attack
Three big moments made the Canadian Government sit up and start worrying about electoral attacks, Gould says. First came the 2015 hacking of the Democratic Party during the US presidential election campaigns. A trove of sensitive emails were published on the Wikileaks website, seemingly with Russian collusion, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton believes that they contributed to her eventual defeat.
A similar story then emerged in France. The Macron campaign was also hacked, with leaked documents seeming to boost the far-right National Front. The Macron campaign fought back, demonstrating that there were fake documents included in the leaks and ensuring that nothing was trusted.
Third were the allegations of how Cambridge Analytica helped the UK’s Brexit vote, using personal data from Facebook to ‘microtarget’ tens of thousands of daily advertisements in a way that shook up the political landscape, and demonstrated the unknown power of big tech platforms.
“In the interim we learned about the Russian intelligence and information operations that were occurring, namely using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube,” Gould says. That has provided a “deeper and broader understanding of the role that social media plays in enabling foreign cyber activity.”
The big tech platforms
These events have caused broader questions about the power of social media companies, and the way that they operate, Gould says. It challenges “what their activities are, what their responses are, and what our expectations of them are as a society”.
Before 2016, “we only saw the good in social media platforms,” she continues. That includes their “incredible ability to connect people,” and the way they made politics “accessible to people that previously were not accessible”. They let politicians talk directly to people, without being filtered by the media. And they mobilised citizens to challenge dictatorships in the Arab Spring, and in the colour revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia.
Yet there was an unknown dark side. “We’re increasingly seeing how those same platforms and those same tools can be manipulated for more nefarious ways that are anti-democratic,” she says. Unknown algorithms and “the commercialisation of human data” is “subverting the very democratic promise that social media had offered”. There must be bigger questions raised about whether people can make informed choices if they are in filter bubbles of information.
A new plan
Gould’s Ministry has studied other elections and created a four point plan to fight foreign interference. The first action is around making people more aware of information warfare. There is a C$7m (US$5.3m) communications campaign to work with civil society groups on this. And there is a policy that allows the Canadian national security agencies to go public if they detect interference so that citizens can be informed.
The message is clear: “So long as the results are not tampered with, whatever decisions Canadians make when they cast their ballot, it’s going to be legitimate”. The policy is designed to make people informed, she says, not change their minds. All of Canada’s big political parties have supported this initiative, Gould notes.
Second, the government has a national security taskforce that has defence, intelligence and foreign affairs agencies united to share information on the threats and act promptly if they spot any danger.
Third is about protecting democratic institutions. All political parties can work with the elections agency to strengthen their cybersecurity, and receive help if they detect hacking attempts. The four main political parties have also been given security clearance to receive up-to-date briefings throughout the election.
Finally, there are the big platforms themselves. The government has set out an agreement with Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft around what content they expect to be monitored on these platforms, and how the tech companies should act when they detect foreign spending or suspicious activity. Twitter has boycotted this agreement, she notes.
Canada is a wealthy and powerful nation, a member of the G7 with a big GDP. If that government can’t get Twitter to sign up to its new policy, what hope do smaller countries have – many of whom don’t even have a Twitter or Facebook office in their nation? Gould responds with a call for more international cooperation, like has happened after the Facebook Live streaming of the Christchurch attacks earlier this year.
“There is definitely an opportunity for smaller countries to join in these efforts, and that’s very important because we have to confront this. It is a global issue with a global response,” she says. Movements like the Open Government Partnership are also useful for spreading the word.
31 year old Gould is fairly new to the world of espionage and electoral interference. But her plan combines Canada’s democratic values with a firm attempt to get tech companies to take responsibility for what they share. Certainly not a non-job, not by any stretch.