BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This is the first report.
Like many people who’ve worked in Alberta’s oil sands, Craig Collins is concerned about the future of the industry and his own employment.
So to earn additional income, Collins developed a lucrative side-hustle building job ad websites and growing their associated Facebook presence. He’s earned more than $50,000 building and flipping job search websites over the past three years.
But as the employment dried up in the oil sands, so too did his ability to create online businesses built around advertising those jobs. Late last year Collins launched a new website, YellowVestGroup.com and began promoting it on a Facebook page and group he created.
Sharing anti-Muslim memes along with images of the Yellow Vest anti-carbon tax protests in Canada, the page attracted more than 7,600 fans while the associated Facebook group had more than 2,700 members.
Collins kept his name off the site and used fake profiles to manage the associated Facebook presence. But a Toronto Star/BuzzFeed News investigation uncovered how he applied internet marketing skills to capitalize on the Yellow Vest movement’s social media presence.
He funneled followers from two Facebook pages and a group to the related website that earns revenue from ads, as well as to an online store where they could buy T-shirts, mugs, and stickers with Yellow Vest slogans.
In his effort to promote what he considered “real news,” Collins also published a story on his website that inaccurately connected a moratorium on new work camps outside Fort McMurray to plans for a new mosque. The misleading story generated close to 15,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
The threat of foreign entities using social media to meddle in elections has prompted Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould to create a committee to alert Canadians about potential interference in this October’s election. But while attention has been focused on countries such as Russia, people like Collins demonstrate how simple it is for anyone to adopt a fake identity and use social media to sway public opinion — even if only to make a buck.
“Don’t make me look like I’m trying to scam the Yellow Vests. I was there [online] to help them get a better name,” Collins said in an interview Tuesday. “All I see is hard-working folks trying to make a change.”
Collins said he was simply trying to create “a support website to show real news other than the fake stuff you’re seeing” about the Yellow Vest movement in Canada, and that he never intended to mislead anyone. He also said he never intended to sell YellowVestGroup.com.
“You can’t sell that. Nobody would want to buy that,” he said.
When the Star and BuzzFeed News brought the accounts to Facebook’s attention, it removed the "Yellow Vest Group" page and the associated Facebook group, citing its policy against “misrepresentation.” The company also removed profiles used by Collins and another person to administer the page and group, citing the same policy violation.
University of Ottawa professor Elizabeth Dubois said the motivation behind the creation of viral political content — whether economic or partisan — is almost beside the point.
“When we talk about the way people learn about politics and develop their political information, when we’re talking about that media environment, it doesn’t actually matter a tonne what the people creating the content had as their motive,” said Dubois.
“The impact of that information which capitalizes on anger or fear, spreading virally, is a thing that’s potentially a threat to the democratic system.”
Collins’ Yellow Vest operation was small scale compared to the Canadian movement’s main Facebook group, which boasts more than 100,000 members. But it’s emblematic of the tactic that keeps Canadian intelligence agencies, political operatives, and elections authorities engaged in preparing for the 2019 election up at night.
Since US intelligence agencies' findings that Russia attempted to tip the 2016 US presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor, democratic countries have had to contemplate the threat that their electoral systems could be gamed by hostile foreign powers on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
As the person responsible for the Liberal government’s efforts to safeguard the integrity of the 2019 vote from threats both foreign and domestic, Gould is in the midst of negotiations with the social media giants.
“While social media and digital platforms create forums that allow Canadians to engage in a dialogue about important issues, they also have a record of being manipulated to spread disinformation, create confusion and exploit existing societal tensions,” a spokesperson for Gould said in a statement.
“We expect these companies to take concrete actions to combat manipulation and we believe in supporting digital literacy tools for Canadians to help them recognize how and when malicious actors exploit online platforms, and how to avoid being susceptible to online manipulation.”
Collins’ “Yellow Vest Group” page attracted thousands of followers on Facebook, but at least some of the protest movement’s adherents were less than convinced of the operator’s commitment to the cause.
“This page has nothing to do with the real Yellow Vest movement,” one reviewer wrote.
“The Yellow Vest movement is about government accountability and the will of the people. This page is just some racist anti-Muslim trash.”
Collins said he doesn’t have anything against Muslims but called Islam “a scary religion.”
He also suggested he might relaunch his site under his own name now that he’s been publicly connected to it. He said he still wants to help change the perception of the Canadian Yellow Vest movement, and to make people aware of the jobs being lost in the oil sands.
“I worked in those camps that were affected [by the moratorium.] Those 27,000 displaced people — I’m one of them.”
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier.
Marco Chown Oved is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @marcooved.