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New Article: Protecting Democracy from Disinformation–Normative Threats and Policy Responses

May 27, 2020

This is truly the lazy man’s blog. Here’s a Twitter thread!

My article surveys policy proposals and debates in 10 countries and the EU, and shows how different democratic goods are the focus of different policy sectors: national security, electoral regulation, and media regulation. (2/n) 

Its spark was a workshop with @HeidiTworek @mckelveyf and the @ppforumca in 2018. We had international experts and Canadian government officials do tabletop simulations of responses to disinfo attacks. It led to our report, published by the Public Policy Forum, Poisoning Democracy: How Canada Can Address Harmful Speech Online.

As a part-time democratic theorist, I wanted to understand the different conceptions of democracy at stake in global debates over disinfo policy. A problem: a new policy or expert study seems to come every 36 hours. Did I miss some? Undoubtedly! (4/n) 

Time for shout-outs! I can’t praise @prof_vaccari and the #IJPP team enough, including for finding the most thoughtful set of peer reviewers I’ve ever had. Thanks also for feedback from @mckayspencer @JordanBuffie @robyncaplan, and support from @peterwklein @SSHRC_CRSH (5/n)

There are a few articles at the intersection of democratic theory, disinfo and disrupted public spheres that I think deserve more attention. Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy by @henryfarrell and @schneierblog (6/n)

Jenni Forestal’s Beyond Gatekeeping: Propaganda, Democracy, and the Organization of Digital Publics @seejenspeak (7/n) 

Dave Karpf’s On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths @davekarpf for the impressive #MediaWell series by @SSRC_mtp (8/n)

The unedited public sphere by @BruceBimber_yu @_HGZ

And lastly, if you’re looking to do comparative work on responding to disinformation, I highly recommend Information Manipulation: A Challenge for Our Democracies by @jeangene_vilme and his @IRSEM1 team (10/n) 

Disinformation and Propaganda – Impact on the Functioning of the Rule of Law in the EU and its Member States by @JuditBayer & colleagues for the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs (11/n) 

And of course, the #IJPP article by @EddaHumprecht @esserfrank_ and @petervanaels, Resilience to Online Disinformation: A Framework for Cross-National Comparative Research (12/12)

New Article: Responding to Online Disinformation and Harmful Speech in Elections

October 8, 2019

I’m happy to be one of the contributors to The Informed Citizen’s Guide to Elections: Current Developments in Democracy, a very timely issue of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law. I can’t wait to dig into chapters from the chief electoral officers for Canada, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Ontario; from leading academics in Canadian electoral law and politics, such as Mike Pal and Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa and Colin Bennett atC the University of Victoria; and from some newer voices in this area, like Brian Budd and Anna Reepschlager.

Copyright Thomson Reuters, 2019

My UBC colleague Heidi Tworek and I wrote a chapter on policy responses to online disinformation and harmful speech in elections. We clarify the risks that disinformation and harmful speech pose to political participation, and examine the current regulatory context in Canada to address them. We propose some policies that would enable the Canadian government, social media platforms and journalism organizations to better understand and reduce the threats to democracy posed by disinformation and harmful speech. These are partly drawn from policies that other countries are pursuing. We call for a three-pronged policy framework: 1) greater enforcement of existing laws, 2) regulation to encourage and help social media platforms address abuses; and 3) improved civil society measures, especially by journalism organizations.

Of course, this chapter was written long before the current election campaign begins. I look forward to a future edited collection, which assesses how Canada’s electoral framework held up to the test in 2019.

What’s happening online during this Canadian election?

September 17, 2019

It’s official: the fall and the election have truly arrived. The rain is pouring, the course I teach on digital media and politics is in full swing, and the campaign ads are coming fast and thick. 

Since Canada’s last federal election, we’ve seen countless stories about Russian disinformation, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, bots, deepfakes, and the Momo Challenge. Are these forms of digital manipulation likely to affect the current election? It’s hard to say, in part because too often we predict what will happen in Canada by extrapolating from developments in the U.S.

I’m therefore happy to be part of an unprecedented effort by researchers and journalists to study the digital media landscape in Canada during this election campaign. The Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge is helping to support 18 research projects, from Fenwick McKelvey’s Great Canadian Encyclopedia of Political Memes to a study of citizen engagement with environmental issues by Shelley Boulianne.

Together with my UBC colleague Heidi Tworek, I’m leading a study of the harassment and abuse that political candidates face online. We will be examining what kind of negative messaging they face, how it affects their work as public communicators, and what they do about it. We’re blessed with a terrific team for this project: Trevor Deley, Grace Lore, Erin Tolley, Jordan Buffie, Greg Eady and Maite Tabouda

I’m particularly keen to learn from political candidates themselves. For better or worse, many of them are already experts on this topic.

For instance, here is Calgary MP Michelle Rempel’s flowchart for dealing with inquiries and abuse she receives on Twitter.

Expect lots more from me on this topic in the coming months.

New Paper: How Syrian Diaspora Use Digital Media to Pursue Justice

March 20, 2019

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a new article, Networking justice: digitally-enabled engagement in transitional justice by the Syrian diaspora. The article is part of a special issue by the journal  Ethnic and Racial Studies. I’m incredibly grateful for the great leadership and feedback from Maria Koinova and Dženeta Karabegović on this project, and for rich conversations with fellow contributors such as Milana NikolkoJoanna Quinn, Espen Stokke, and Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm.

What’s the article about, you ask? In short, it looks at how Syrian diaspora have used digital media to pursue accountability and truth in response to massive rights violations in Syria… and how the Syrian government and other actors use digitally-enabled tactics to fight these efforts.


Illustration by Kevin Tong /

The article builds on a line of research I began a few years ago with the project The War is Just a Click Away, a series for OpenCanada that looked at how people experienced the Syrian civil war through digital connections.

Here is the abstract and first few paragraphs. I encourage you to check out the full article — and the full special issue — at Ethnic and Racial Studies:


Digital communication technologies (DCTs) introduce new opportunities and challenges for diaspora to advance transitional justice. This article proposes three DCT-enabled mechanisms that shape diaspora engagement with transitional justice politics and processes, developed through an analysis of diaspora responses to rights violations in Syria. First, diaspora can promote transitional justice aims through connective action: loosely-coordinated, transnational mobilizations using social media. Second, DCTs enable diaspora to contribute to crowdsourced documentation of rights violations. Third, diaspora seeking to advance transitional justice may face digital repression by authoritarian governments in their original homelands. The article shows how DCTs may alter the means and opportunities for diaspora to engage in transitional justice activities, including in situations of ongoing conflict or repression in their original homelands. It also demonstrates how digital spaces are strategically engaged by activists, civil society organizations, state governments, and other actors seeking to advance or contest transitional justice aims.


Between 2011 and 2013, a photographer working for the Syrian government took pictures of over 6,000 people allegedly killed in government custody, often after being tortured (Human Rights Watch 2015). The photographer, who used the alias “Caesar,” smuggled these images out of Syria on USB sticks and compact discs.

Foreign governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) used the images to call for Syrian government officials to be held accountable for violations (United Nations Security Council 2014; Human Rights Watch2015), a major attempt to introduce transitional justice amidst a conflict. The images were also shared online among Syrian diaspora, including a Spanish citizen who found a photo of her dead brother and launched a criminal complaint in Spanish courts against senior members of the Syrian government (Entous 2017). It is one of several criminal cases in Europe that use digital evidence of violations in Syria (Human Rights Watch 2017).

As this sketch illustrates, digital communication technologies (DCTs) are enabling new practices of transnational advocacy and action. How might these developments affect the field of transitional justice, and in particular the role that diaspora can play in its processes and politics?

Read more…

The meme-ification of politics: Politicians & their ‘lit’ memes

February 11, 2019

Thanks to Grace Chiang, the main author of this article. Published via The Conversation under a Creative Commons license – here’s the original article.


In November, during a televised debate about electoral reform, British Columbia Premier John Horgan told the audience, “If you were woke, you’d know that pro rep is lit.”

By “pro rep,” he meant “proportional representation,” an alternative to the current first-past-the-post voting system. By “woke,” he meant socially conscious. By “lit,” he meant, according to the Urban Dictionary, “Something that is f—ing amazing in any sense.” The B.C. NDP soon tweeted his remark, and a meme was born.

This is a federal election year, so Canadians should be ready for a meme-filled 2019. Political memes are increasingly prominent in political discourse, and politicians will be using this latest online strategy to attract, infuriate, persuade or bemuse voters.

It’s therefore worthwhile understanding how memes can shape the tone and perceptions of campaigns or policies. And it’s also useful to look at politicians’ recent attempts to use memes for good and ill.

What is a political meme?

A political meme is a purposefully designed visual framing of a position. Memes are a new genre of political communication, and they generally have at least one of two characteristics — they are inside jokes and they trigger an emotional reaction.

Memes work politically if they are widely — or virally — shared, if they help cultivate a sense of belonging to an “in-group” and if they make a compelling normative statement about a public figure or political issue.

Memes can spread rapidly online and into popular culture due to their shareability — they are easily created, consumed, altered and disseminated. They can quickly communicate the creator’s stance on the subject. The stronger the emotional response provoked by a post, the greater the intent to spread it.

Though memes may spread widely, they usually cater to a specific audience who inhabit a “shared sphere of cultural knowledge.” That audience tends to have self-referential language, cultivating an in-group that can decipher the memes and get the “in joke” while those who aren’t in on the joke cannot. (For an excellent display of this, listen to one of the “Yes Yes No” segments on the Reply All podcast, in which the hosts explain complex, multi-layered memes to a confused non-digital native.)

Read more…

Op-ed: We can’t rely solely on Silicon Valley to tackle online hatred

November 24, 2018

The Globe and Mail published this op-ed on November 12th, allowing Heidi Tworek, Fen McKelvey to share the core ideas of  Poisoning Democracy: What Canada Can Do About Harmful Speech Online. That report was published on November 8th by the Public Policy Forum

It is increasingly clear that online speech contributes to offline violence and fear. In the United States, demonization and denigration have become regular parts of political discourse, whether the targets are political opponents or scapegoated groups such as Jewish congregants, migrants fleeing Central Americaor outspoken women. Hatred and fear on social media have led to violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Kenya and elsewhere.

Canada has not avoided these developments. Online hatred seems to have partly motivated the 2017 mass shooting in a Quebec mosqueand the 2018 vehicle attack in Toronto. More broadly, right-wing extremismis increasing rapidly online.

Hate, abuse and harassment are all forms of what we call “harmful speech.” Harmful speech is not limited to social media, but these platforms can make it easier for hateful ideologies to spread, and for individuals to target other users with threats of violence. Foreign actors, too, have found social media platforms a convenient means to pursue political aims, including by promoting social conflict on issues of race, religion and immigration.

Canada has laws to address some of the most problematic forms of harmful speech, including hate propaganda, threats of violence and foreign interference in elections. The agencies responsible for enforcing these laws need the resources and political backing to take stronger action.

However, the social media companies themselves have a critical role to play. Right now, the vast majority of harmful speech is dealt with (or not) through the enforcement of platforms’ own community guidelines or standards. These policies have been developed in response to tragedies, user complaints, company branding exercises, and – to an extent – national laws. Two figures show the scale of this issue. In the first three months of 2018, Facebook took actionon 2.5 million pieces of hateful content. Between April and June this year, YouTube users flaggedvideos as hateful or abusive more than 6.6 million times.

Despite their laudable efforts, platforms struggle to enforce their content moderation policies in ways that are timely, fair and effective. Just a few days after 11 people were killed in a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Twitter allowed “Kill all Jews” to trendas a topic on the platform during an alleged hate crime in Brooklyn. And when social-media companies do apply their policies to high-profile users, such as when multiple platforms banned Infowars’ Alex Jones, they can face a backlash and even threats of government action.

Platform companies cannot solve these problems alone. They need clearer guidelines from governments, and greater assistance from civil society groups and researchers. In return, they need to be more transparent and responsive to the individuals and communities affected by their policies.

We make three recommendations to pursue those goals in Canada.

First, the federal government should compel social media companies to be more transparent about their content moderation, including their responses to harmful speech. Some platforms are doing much better than just a year ago. However, it should not be up to their own discretion to inform Canadians about how our online speech is being governed.

Second, governments, foundations, companies and universities need to support more research to understand and respond to harmful speech, as well as the related problem of disinformation. Other democracies are doing a much better job than Canada in this area.

Finally, we propose a Moderation Standards Council. Similar to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, the council would convene social media companies, civil society and other stakeholders to develop and implement codes of conduct to address harmful speech. The council would share best practices, co-ordinate cross-platform efforts and improve the transparency and accountability of content moderation. It would also create an appeal processes to address complaints. We believe such a council would provide a fairer, better co-ordinated, and more publicly-responsive approach to harmful speech online.

Our recommendations strike an appropriate balance between the protection of free expression and other rights, recognizing that expression is not “free” for people who face hate, threat, and abuse when engaging in public debates. Our recommendations also balance public oversight with industry viability. More co-operation on these issues with government and civil society makes good business sense for soical media companies.

Above all, we hope to foster broader public debate on this issue. Responses to harmful speech should not be decided for us in Silicon Valley boardrooms or in offices on Parliament Hill alone. The rules for speech online should be subject to public input and oversight. The poisoning of democracy is a serious and complex problem. It should be addressed democratically.