Top News

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Who’s monitoring weapons of mass propaganda?

Mass texting can be a very potent tool for political parties or groups looking to plant messaging. —
Mass texting can be a very potent tool for political parties or groups looking to plant messaging. — 123RF Stock Photo

Do me the favour of not lying to my face.

Or lying to me in my home.

But most of all, don’t reach into my smartphone and lie to me there as well.

Last week, Elections Canada put out guidelines for election advertising on the internet. Among other things, people who sell a certain threshold of political ads online in the upcoming federal election will have to keep a registry of the political ads they sell.

But like most fences, rules are sometimes as significant for what they fence out, rather than what they fence in. And one of the things Elections Canada isn’t putting inside the fence looks like it’s going to be a monumental pain in the butt.

Elections Canada says online advertising doesn’t include, “Text messages, emails, and other private messages” or “User-generated content posted for free on social media.”

Well, isn’t that just super.

If a political party will weaponize an autodialler to make fake robocalls — and understand me here, I’m not talking about a particular party, I’m talking about any party — then you can only imagine how much trouble any one of Canada’s political parties can get into with the ease of a random number generator and the ability to mass-text cellphones. Or, for that matter, how much of a mess it will be when third-party issues-based groups start piling into the digital fray with their own carpet-bombing of your cellphone or Facebook page.

But wait: you don’t have to imagine it.

By some accounts, one party in the recent election in Israel was planning to send out two million texts on election day alone. Another problem? Many of the ramped-up Israeli election day texts were pretty obviously false information — and as election day went on, the messages got progressively more intense.

If a political party will weaponize an autodialler to make fake robocalls — and understand me here, I’m not talking about a particular party, I’m talking about any party — then you can only imagine how much trouble any one of Canada’s political parties can get into with the ease of a random number generator and the ability to mass-text cellphones.

So, what do you do?

It’s going to be difficult for the average voter. If you take any time to follow social media users who operate outside the bubble of your own particular political beliefs, you’ll see an ever-growing trend of people believing things to be true simply because they want to believe that they’re true. (News flash — the exact same is also true for like-mind people posting in your own social media circle. It’s just harder to see, because you’re already a member of the club.)

Because of that, outlandishly inaccurate (OK — completely fake) ideas get more and more traction because people sharing them aren’t particularly interested in questioning them, let alone debunking them.

Now, what happens when political parties and outside groups exploit that weakness? It’s bad enough on social media, but at least there, you have to log onto your favourite site to experience the deluge.

It’s a different story again if you don’t have the option of scrolling by whatever’s being thrown at you. If, for example, you have no choice but to take the digital call, because your phone rings, pings, vibrates or otherwise triggers your attention, how do you avoid the interruption?

You’re primed for the message because your phone has already conditioned your brain, and when you read, “so-and-so lies” or “so-and-so is going to destroy the economy/environment/health care system,” seeds get planted. It’s quick, dirty and also ephemeral.

Right now, there are a few companies that seem to believe that I’m going to like it if they harvest my phone number during a purchase, and then send me instant messages whenever they feel like it, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. I’m usually quite hostile in response, suggesting that leaving me on their instant message lists means losing my business.

But what do you do if your number’s picked at random by politicians, and the unrestrained poison just starts to drip?

Even the Wild West needs a sheriff.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


MORE FROM RUSSELL WANGERSKY

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories