Technology, proactive laws can help protect online democracy

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Around the world – from U.S. elections to Brexit – foreign influencers, trolls and bots are doing their level best to interfere with 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 first-hand 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. 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 blame 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 similar tampering 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 engaged democracy.

New political ad requirements

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 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 in Waterloo released a document 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 ways of using technogy to accurately verify the IDs of people doing business online. These new methods help remove anonymity and give organizations the tools to increase trust online through electronic identity verification.

In Canada, social media giants are not required to use tools or measures to identify and remove bad actors who are spreading disinformation online during elections. The federal government should be proactive and mandate that social platforms take early steps to prevent election tampering by requiring them to verify the IDs of advertisers and users before they are permitted to run social ads or post content. 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. An investigation led by Canada’s National Observer showed that the influence of fake memes, content and conspiracies 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. 

Using 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; it not only confirms an individual’s right to participate in the democratic process, but also protects 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.

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, one hopes, authentic society where trust is at the forefront of online content.

Stephen Ufford is CEO and founder of Trulioo, a global identity and business verification company.