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Heritage Minister Promotes Claim That Tech Companies, Academics are Behind a ‘Deliberate Campaign of Misinformation’ to Stop Bill C-10

Blog post shared by Heritage Minister claims without evidence that Google may be suppressing positive stories about Bill C-10 in its search results

Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Heritage, is promoting unsubstantiated claims that Silicon Valley and Canadian academics are teaming up to manipulate public opinion on Bill C-10 through a “deliberate campaign of misinformation.”

Guilbeault, who has made a series of missteps in recent weeks, has struggled to communicate the federal government’s message on Bill C-10, a controversial piece of legislation that seeks to bring some digital platforms and social media content under similar regulations as television and radio broadcasts.

The parliamentary heritage committee, including Liberal MPs, unanimously agreed to put Bill C-10 on pause pending a Charter review amid concerns the legislation may have unintended implications for freedom of expression online.

Monday night, Guilbeault tweeted out a blog post that suggested opposition to the legislation was not a reflection of the bill’s shortcomings, but was instead part of a “deliberate campaign of misinformation” orchestrated by “web giants”:

“We are now witnessing public opinion being manipulated at scale through a deliberate campaign of misinformation by commercial interests that would prefer to avoid the same regulatory oversight applied to broadcast media.”


The blog post itself was authored by Gord Dimitrieff, the “government relations” point person for a music industry lobby group. Dimitrieff originally submitted the piece to the Globe and Mail but later posted it on his blog when they “passed.”

“The public debate around C-10 has been largely centred on whether or not it enables the government to regulate public speech,” Dimitrieff told PressProgress. “While I agree this bill has problems, I think the free speech argument is a red herring.”

Dimitrieff said he thinks it is “naive” to assume tech companies are not “deeply concerned” about Bill C-10 and believes they are “actively influencing public opinion for the purpose of avoiding government oversight.”

In his blog post, which was shared by the Heritage Minister, Dimitrieff suggests “academic allies” at Canadian universities could be part of that deliberate campaign of misinformation too:

“These technology companies have engaged in a well-documented pattern of financing sympathetic research at universities and think tanks, investing in non-profit advocacy groups, and funding pro-business coalitions that masquerade as public-interest projects for the purpose of influencing public opinion and policymakers.”

Asked if Guilbeault endorsed the blog’s claims, the Heritage Minister’s spokesperson noted the blog “refers to previous historical facts” and provided a link to a New York Times article discussing Google’s partnerships with academics in Europe.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that the Heritage Minister appears to be trafficking in “misinformation and conspiracy theory.”

“I’m an independent, non-partisan academic who isn’t paid by anyone to express my views,” Geist told PressProgress, adding he was reminded of the attacks he faced when he was “critical of the Harper government.”

“Rather than trafficking in conspiracy theories, I think the Heritage Minister would do better to work to understand the implications of his own bill and why it has drawn criticism from thousands of Canadians, including Justice Ministers, former CRTC commissioners, and a myriad of independent experts.”

Geist isn’t the only one with concerns.

Google says they’re also scratching their heads about a section of the blog shared by the Heritage Minister that suggests the company is manipulating its search results to suppress positive coverage of Bill C-10:

“Perhaps coincidentally, it should also surprise nobody that at the time of this writing, the first pages of search results for “Bill C-10” on both Facebook and Google contain countless opinion pieces claiming the government wants to regulate free speech, and precisely zero articles outlining how the corporate agendas of these unregulated “web giants” might be undermining democratic society by determining the ideas and issues that ordinary citizens discover on the Internet.”

“The allegations that Google is manipulating its search results to favour opponents of the Bill, or that any public criticism of the bill is part of a deliberate campaign for misinformation, are utterly baseless and completely false,” a Google spokesperson told PressProgress.

“Many stakeholders, including  independent academics, have already pointed (this) out,” Google noted.

But Dimitrieff says he isn’t so sure. He says he checked it out before blogging about it.

“I literally typed ‘Bill C-10’ into both Facebook’s search function and Google, and found pages of editorials arguing against the bill, and literally nothing arguing the other way,” the Canadian Independent Music Association board member told PressProgress.

“I have no idea if this is deliberate editorial bias or not, which is why I suggested it was coincidental — but nonetheless, I find it interesting in the context of algorithmic bias.”

Dimitrieff’s blog also raises concerns about democracy, noting Facebook and Twitter “acted to silence” former US President Donald Trump and Amazon “unilaterally killed” Parler, a social media platform popular with far-right extremists, QAnon followers and DC insurrectionists:

“Most recently, Facebook and Twitter acted to silence former US President Donald Trump, and Amazon unilaterally killed the alternative ‘free speech’ platform Parler by evicting it from the AWS cloud computing service.”

Medium

In a statement to PressProgress, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said he shared the blog post because he felt it was a good discussion on the “lack of accountability from the private social media platforms towards citizens.”

“Whether or not we agree with a specific opinion from a user or decision by a platform, we need to think about what we want as a society,” Guilbeault said in response to questions about whether he agreed with the blog’s discussion of Facebook and Twitter’s decision to ban Trump.

“Arbitrary decisions that can’t be challenged will have a huge impact on all of us.”

Guilbeault added that the federal government has a “role to play in establishing consistent and coherent rules to ensure fairness, transparency and due process across platforms.”

 

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