After Trudeau was endlessly lampooned for his boneheaded “peoplekind” manterruption by both the domestic and international press throughout the week (I don’t really care if it was joke or not, or taken out of context, the point is Trudeau says dumb things often, meant seriously, that usually get ignored or praised by Canadian mainstream media), the Liberal Party of Canada’s greatest cheerleader, the Toronto Star, was given a “scoop” on Thursday from the federal Liberal government that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had spoken with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg last November and warned her the social media giant could face regulations from the Canadian government.
The Star article revealed that Trudeau told Sandberg Facebook “needs to fix its ‘fake news’ problems or face stronger regulation from Ottawa.” Although what constitutes fake news was not made clear in the report, a couple paragraphs jumped out at me.
“Trudeau told Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in November he was concerned the company wasn’t doing enough to stop the spread of misleading information on their platform, a source with direct knowledge of the conversation told the Star.”
“Trudeau’s comments came during a meeting with Sandberg at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Vietnam last November. According to the source, Trudeau was particularly concerned about Facebook identifying the origin of partisan ‘news’ posts or advertisements.”
So what exactly does Trudeau mean by “partisan ‘news’ posts or advertisements”? Would third-party advertiser and Facebook group Ontario Proud, an anti-Liberal organization, fall into this category? Ontario Proud has been especially successful in harnessing the power of Facebook to attack and ridicule Premier Kathleen Wynne and Trudeau mercilessly, as I documented in my piece for Canadaland profiling the founder of Ontario Proud. This week, Ontario Proud had millions of interactions with its content that mocked Trudeau’s “peoplekind” gaffe. Although Ontario Proud is hyper-partisan in its attacks against Wynne and Trudeau, none of its posts are outright false information. Its attacks are no more inappropriate than the attacks you’ll see on The Daily Show or the Stephen Colbert Show in their lambasting of President Trump.
Gerald Butts is Trudeau’s best friend and principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s no secret that Trudeau cares more about being the salesman of his government than actually doing the governing in Ottawa. Many have surmised that Butts is the brains behind the operation when it comes to government operations, like, you know, making laws. But don’t take my word for it, here’s a piece from government-funded and Liberal-connected Walrus Magazine (which Butts’ wife now sits on the board) saying how smart Butts is. Butts publicly bellyached over Ontario Proud last month, questioning where the Facebook group’s funding has come from. Yet, ironically, last federal election saw millions of dollars funneled into Canada from America to environmental third-party groups, including World Wildlife Fund Canada, where Butts used to be the CEO (before departing in 2012, somehow receiving a salary the following year as part of his half-a-million-dollar severance package, to help Trudeau become leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and the next PM). Butts and the Trudeau government have shown no real concern over the fact wealthy individuals in the United States are funneling their money into Canada in order to influence our elections, where some of the money trickles down to eco-radicals, resulting in pipeline development and oil distribution in Canada being stymied, like the the current battle between British Columbia and Alberta over a pipeline. No, Butts only shows concern about partisan interest groups when they’re attacking his buddy, Trudeau.
So, did Butts, seeing the wild popularity of Facebook groups like Ontario Proud, or the success of the hyper-partisan right-wing news outlet Rebel Media, set up the meeting with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg so that they could discuss curbing or shutting down their influence?
The Star article doesn’t even elaborate on where in the government this anonymous source is from. Later in the article, however, it’s implied the source is someone from the Prime Minister’s Office when the journalist explains the PMO wouldn’t give specifics about what was said at the meeting between Trudeau and Sandberg.
This means the Canadian public is in the dark about what the Trudeau government deems is “fake” and “partisan” news and what they have discussed with Facebook as a way to go about stifling it. All we know is that Trudeau and Sandberg had a “constructive” meeting last November on how to combat certain partisan media and advertisers. Facebook is notoriously non-transparent about how it curates people’s Facebook feeds, not disclosing how the algorithm and Facebook employees decide what individuals are fed and not fed on their feeds of the content shared by their friends and advertisements paid for by advertisers. But enough reports are out there to know that Facebook has been working hard to censor so-called fake news. Tactics can involve lowering the disbursement or outright blocking undesirable content. Facebook has already been criticized for cracking down on Facebook users in Germany that openly criticize the controversial German government’s migrant policy and for suppressing favourable right-wing news stories from its trending news app.
Now, all of this brings us back to this week’s explosion of ridicule of Justin Trudeau over his “peoplekind” interjection. Canadaland already did a recent podcast discussing how Facebook essentially bought off the Canadian government for the exceptionally low price of a $500,000 investment put towards Canadian journalism startups. Now, instead of the government regulating Facebook, Facebook is telling the government and politicians how to approach “sanitizing” Facebook. The Trudeau government also spends millions of dollars ($13.6 million last year) in government-sponsored advertising of which $4.65 million was spent on Facebook ads.
“Facebook has also launched a ‘Canadian Election Integrity’ initiative late last year, providing a guide for MPs, candidates and parties to guard against mischief online and providing a direct link between political actors and the company’s security team. The company is also taking steps to provide some transparency around who is buying advertisements and who they’re targeting,” wrote Star‘s Alex Boutilier in the Thursday report.
Will PMO operatives and politicians like Butts and Trudeau report outlets like Ontario Proud when they make fun of the PM? Will independent publishers like Blacklock’s Reporter, which digs up dirt on the federal government, such as how the Liberals spent over $200,000 on the last budget cover, be reported to Facebook by Liberals for “fake” or “partisan” news, then suppressed from being shared on Facebook? Will an article, like the one you’re reading right now, be censored on Facebook because the government deems it “partisan” or “fake” news?
The timing of the anonymous PMO source leaking the context of the meeting between Trudeau and Facebook’s Sandberg is highly suspicious. It came near the end of a week where Trudeau was lampooned for saying “peoplekind.” Ridicule can be devastating to a politician’s popularity. Butts was clearly perturbed by the news cycle, domestically and internationally, eviscerating Trudeau.
Were individuals from the Trudeau government reporting to Facebook about right-wing media outlets, or even the Washington Post, for not, correctly in the government’s eye, interpreting Trudeau’s gaffe as a joke gone awry? Were Liberals trying to get content like Ontario Proud’s censored, or curb its reach on Facebook? Facebook classifies its users politically. Perhaps the social media giant could contain Ontario Proud content to users classified as conservatives, reducing the damaging message to merely bouncing back and forth in right-wing echo chambers.
Did Butts, or someone else from the PMO on his order, go to the Star as “the source” with the story about the meeting between Trudeau and Sandberg as a warning to Facebook to get more aggressive in censoring content found to be undesirable to the Liberal government or else face regulations from the Trudeau government? (It should also be noted that Frank Magazine Ottawa, a satirical publication, has reported that Butts apparently has a good relationship with former publisher and current chair of Torstar’s board of directors, John Honderich, reportedly getting an annual stay at Honderich’s island cottage, and reportedly had a private dinner with him and both the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Star shortly after Trudeau won the election.)
Did Butts or other political operatives within the Trudeau government report Info Wars’ — a right-wing conspiracy news outlet — Paul Joseph Watson’s article on Butts or YouTube video (with over 371,000 views as of writing) of him ridiculing the PM? Sure, Info Wars is a highly dubious news source (the same could be said of most media outlets. more or less, when it comes to them actually informing their audiences), but I’m of the opinion consumers should be able to make their own choices of what media outlets and viewpoints they want to consume.
Whatever you, the reader, thinks of Info Wars, you should at least be concerned about the relationship between Facebook and the Trudeau government, which deserves more scrutiny and transparency in who they plan to target in the name of combating fake and “partisan” news. Otherwise, we might end up with only government-approved and government-funded media like CBC, The Walrus, and Maclean’s (still getting nearly $1.5 million print grant from the Trudeau government despite quartering its print production) being allowed on platforms like Facebook and Youtube (a former top Google exec is friends with Trudeau and on the board of the Trudeau Foundation), that dominate as platforms where Canadians spend most of their time consuming information online.
The Trudeau government, commissioning one of its favourite so-called non-partisan think-tank Public Policy Forum to come up with a report on the state of Canadian media. The findings trumped up the dangers of fake news, which I reported for Canadaland early last year, to try and legitimize pouring hundreds of millions dollars more into bailing out legacy media and for censorship of “fake news.” (By the way, Public Policy Forum is anything but an objective and independent think tank, as the National Post‘s Terrence Corcoran’s “I (barely) survived a night inside the Liberal party’s undrained Public Policy swamp” makes clear.) Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, during the same time period, said she was “proud” that her government was “ahead of the curve” in combating fake news and wondered what role the government could play in the future. The answer, of course, is none.
(Maclean’s, in its latest gimmicky cover-story, repeats the same myths the government keeps spouting in its gender-discriminatory policies that only focus on the average salary of women and men, and quota of women in some sectors where they represent less than half the workforce. This obfuscates how men and women choose different career paths, like how men on average are more willing to work more dangerous jobs — and make up the vast majority of workplace fatalities — which typically pay better than the average job. Or that women make up the vast majority of good-paying public sector jobs in Canada. Or that men, on average, work a longer work week and have a higher drive for status. If you want more of the complex truth, in which sexism obviously plays a significant role, between the continued disparity in the average salary of men and women, read my piece “Tinker, Tailor, Sorry, Guys” in which I cite second-wave feminist Warren Farrell’s paradigm-shifting book, Why Men Earn More, extensively.)
(Government bought and paid for “comedy”. Critch and his ilk know that the court jester should only ever give Dear Leader a polite, light ribbing. A good court jester never wants lose favour with his/her paymaster. Also kind of bizarre how Trudeau took him on his trip to NYC and seems to be friends with him. The only time government comedians do real satire is when the Conservatives are in charge and they fear their redundant jobs might be cut.)
I intend to press the PMO (perhaps writing follow-up pieces for publications like Canadaland) and try, however futile, to get some honest answers about what the Trudeau government defines as fake news and what they want Facebook to do about it.