Elections Canada investigators have waged a four-month manhunt for sponsors of a fake news item targeting New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh. Access To Information records indicate the hoax was traced to a company registered in Israel.
“The identity of the purchaser of the electoral advertising is unknown,” wrote Nicholas Alexander, lead investigator for the Commissioner of Elections: “I believe it is necessary to determine the identity of the purchaser.”
Singh was campaigning in a February 25 byelection in Burnaby South, B.C. when the online Vancouver Courier published a February 4 website ad depicting the NDP leader alongside a $5.5 million home. “Jagmeet Singh shows off his new mansion”, read the caption.
Singh does not own a mansion. The falsehood also appeared in ad banners at The History Channel and other websites.
The content was removed February 6 after it was exposed by The Tyee. New Democrats filed a federal complaint citing a breach of the Elections Act section 91 that states: “No person shall with the intention of affecting the results of an election, knowingly make or publish false statements of fact in relation to the personal conduct of a candidate or prospective candidate.”
Investigator Alexander in a report said he sought a judicial order to compel release of records from an ad broker that would identify the source. “I determined section 91 does not apply to the circumstances, given the image and accompanying caption does not constitute a false statement of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of Mr. Singh,” wrote Alexander, former staff sergeant with the RCMP commercial crimes unit. “However, other sections of the Act pertaining to election advertising did apply.”
Alexander wrote the fake news item appeared to breach section 319 that requires disclosure of sponsors of campaign ads under federal spending limits. “I believe the advertisement featuring an image of Jagmeet Singh constitutes election advertising, specifically because (it) depicts an image of Jagmeet Singh and states he possesses a mansion; (it) depicts another image of Jagmeet Singh beside two images of a large mansion, with a headline insinuating that he owns a $5.5 million mansion; the NDP policy book at paragraph three states the NDP believes in ‘implementing a national strategy to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians,’” wrote Alexander.
The report continued: “The advertisement implies that Jagmeet Singh owns a $5.5 million mansion which conflicts with stated policy of the NDP with respect to accessible, affordable housing. The advertisement clearly opposes his candidature as it calls into question his bona fides as leader of the NDP. It implies his lifestyle is not conducive to the stated policy provisions of the NDP with respect to affordable housing.”
First Fake News Probe
The ad was posted through a broker, Taboola Canada Inc. of Toronto, that was cleared of any wrongdoing. Taboola told the Commissioner of Elections it “did not produce any of the content”, but could not identify who did without a court order.
Investigator Alexander obtained the order March 27. Evidence suggested the ad was purchased through a firm listed in the Israeli corporate registry, according to Access To Information records.
The Commissioner of Elections yesterday would not comment on the ongoing probe. “The duration of these investigations can vary greatly,” said Michelle Laliberté, spokesperson for the Commissioner. The Singh mansion hoax is the first to fall under federal investigation since cabinet on January 30 announced a $7 million program to monitor online news coverage in the October 21 general election campaign.
“Ultimately it’s not our job to tell Canadians what is good or bad information, but to provide them the tools and the resources to, when something comes to them, to make a choice on their own and to say where this information is coming from, who is behind it, and what their objective is,” Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould earlier told reporters.
“When you open up a newspaper, you have a sense this is coming from a journalist who’s professional, who has done their research, who has worked at it, and whose information is coming from a reliable source,” said Gould. “Of course, depending on which newspaper that is, you have a sense of where that information is coming from. When you go onto a social media platform and you see a meme or you see a story, if it’s being shared by a friend or a cousin or someone trusted, you may implicitly share that information because it’s coming from a trusted source.”
New Democrats expressed frustration with the pace and scope of the investigation. “It spread through Twitter and Facebook who themselves have no responsibilities,” MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) told a February 7 hearing of the House affairs committee. “What happens then?”
“It’s a completely made up story to try to discredit the NDP leader in the byelection,” said Cullen. “It is utterly untrue.”
“What we have now is fake news which is akin to a match,” said Cullen: “Social media is like the wind. These lies can be weaponized now unlike ever before, and weaponized in that they’re targeting particular voters on their motivated issues. Is that a fair analogy in terms of what the threat is?”
“Certainly that is a significant threat,” replied Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault.