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Misinformation and foreign interference threaten Canada’s electoral system, warns election watchdog

Misinformation and foreign interference are two of the biggest threats to Canada’s electoral system and it will take everyone working together to counter them, Canada’s chief election watchdog has said.

Speaking during an interview with CBC News to mark the end of his 10-year term as Commissioner of Canada Elections, Yves Côté said online misinformation is one of the biggest challenges he has had to face. cope and noted that it can be difficult to be optimistic about the future.

“I think there are all sorts of challenges lurking and some of them maybe getting worse as we move forward with time,” Côté said.

However, he noted that there is a solution if different groups can work together.

“Nobody should just get discouraged and give up the fight or give up on the project,” he said.

“I think a lot of people have to contribute and I think that’s the job of politicians on all sides, of institutions, of the media, of academics. It’s all kinds of people who have to stick together and say this. is a hazard.”

WATCH | Yves Côté on the complex challenge of misinformation and foreign interference:

Disinformation and foreign interference are main electoral challenges, says commissioner

The outgoing Commissioner of Canada Elections, Yves Côté, talks about the main challenges facing the Canadian electoral system.

Disinformation against the troubling electoral system

Côté said he was particularly troubled by the disinformation attacks on Canada’s electoral system.

“When people try to convince others that the way votes or ballots are counted doesn’t work,” Côté said.

“When they try to misinform people about where they can vote, how they can vote or where, they are trying to raise issues with the professionalism or competence of, for example, Elections Canada or our own office for reasons that have no basis for them. , I find that very, very embarrassing.”

Côté said he’s negotiated deals with companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook that help streamline the process of getting information when his office needs to investigate a complaint, but he said he didn’t. no agreements with other “foreign agencies” such as Tencent, the company that owns the popular Chinese language application WeChat.

Côté’s departure at the end of this month comes amid these new technological challenges that probably could not have been imagined 10 years ago when the headlines were dominated by the robocall removal scandal during the 2011 election, when voters in several constituencies received automated phone calls with recorded messages directing them to the wrong place to vote.

His replacement, Caroline Simard, takes office on August 15.

Foreign interference ‘difficult to investigate’

In addition to the challenges posed by misinformation, Côté said Simard will face the threat of foreign interference in the election.

“For us, as a law enforcement agency, that poses all kinds of challenges, especially if these foreign countries don’t have good diplomatic relations with us,” Côté said.

“It’s very difficult to investigate, very difficult to get the evidence that you might need to build a case, and then of course it’s very difficult to bring these people to Canadian courts, assuming you were able to gather the evidence you needed to do that.”

In a recent interview with CBC Radio’s The House, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole revealed that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) informed her party during the last election of attempts on WeChat to influence the race in a number of constituencies with false information. .

LISTEN | Erin O’Toole discusses interference in the 2021 election:

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Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole opens up in a lengthy interview with host Chris Hall to discuss the convoy, China and the caucus revolt that ended her leadership.

Côté said his office maintains relationships with CSIS, the Canadian security establishment, the RCMP and various police forces.

“Certainly we have heard about the fact that there have been campaigns like this or allegations that there have been campaigns like this and that is a topic that we are very interested in,” said Side.

In addition to the attempts that Elections Canada is aware of and can decipher, he said there are also things going on under the radar that they are not aware of.

“There are the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. So it’s a very complex thing where we have a role to play.”

Protection of voter privacy

Another challenge is to protect the privacy of voters.

Currently, federal political parties are exempt from federal privacy legislation. Côté said he has received several complaints about political parties misusing voters’ private information.

“Given the framework that currently exists, there was really nothing we could do because the law is so open and so generous or so not restrictive enough in terms of what political parties do.”

Côté pointed to new legislation in Quebec that will subject parties and candidates to confidentiality rules, which he hopes the federal government will adopt. He said he also supports a recommendation by Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault to prevent hate groups from forming recognized political parties.

Some voters have said in the past that they do not want to be registered to vote, fearing that their information could be accessed by individuals or groups that advocate hatred.

Ultimately, Côté believes his tenure was successful, increasing the independence of the office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections and securing changes, such as the introduction of administrative monetary penalties as an alternative to prosecution for certain election law violations. .

“We have a good team and we certainly have a commissioner, an incoming commissioner, who is highly capable and highly qualified to take over from me and take the office to higher and better places.”