NDP asks elections watchdog to investigate 'slanderous' ads targeting Singh
The NDP is asking the elections commissioner to investigate after two false stories about party leader Jagmeet Singh popped up online in the lead-up to the Burnaby South byelection later this month.
As the Tyee first reported, an ad claiming Singh owns a $5.5 million mansion ran below a story in the Vancouver Courier, a community paper. That link took readers to an article titled "13 Super Luxurious Celebrity Houses – They Surely Know How to Spend Their Fortune" on the website Attorney Cocktail.
A second false story — which has been shared more than 5,700 times on Facebook — accuses Singh of links to Sikh militants.
The NDP sent CBC News screen capture images that show the ad that appeared in the Courier also appeared on the History Channel website and the U.K.-based site for the Independent newspaper.
Clicking on the link brings the reader to a photo gallery of more than 145 celebrities with mansions, including Alex Rodriguez, the Obamas and Rihanna.
The opulent lifestyle allegation runs counter to the NDP's call for more affordable housing, a key pillar of its election platform.
In a letter to Commissioner of Elections Yves Côté, the NDP's Director of Operations Jesse Strean writes that the party "is very concerned" about the "slanderous" ads and asks Côté to investigate possible breaches of the Elections Act.
"These patently false statements are damaging to our leader, our party brand and most importantly threaten the free and fair election currently under way," reads the letter, obtained by CBC News.
"These advertisements are clearly false and are intended to affect the outcome of the upcoming election."
Singh is running to represent Burnaby-South in the House of Commons in the Feb. 25 byelection.
The party says the mansions ad was placed by the New York-based advertising company Taboola, which is responsible for many of the "around the web" and "recommended for you" advertising boxes located at the bottom of some online news articles.
A spokesperson for Taboola told The Tyee the company takes 'fake news' seriously and would remove the content if it violates their internal policy.
By mid-morning Wednesday, Singh's face appeared to have been removed from the Attorney Cocktail slideshow.
Companies go under the radar
Concordia University professor Fenwick McKelvey, who studies how social media manipulation can alter political debates online, said the Taboola incident points to a grey zone in online advertising.
"I think it's actually important because it points to companies that aren't well captured in a lot of our discussions about online advertising and internet accountability, but they're important players," he said in an interview with CBC.
"It's an interesting gray area because it seems like they were advertising a clickbait story. So it just seems like it was actually poor sourcing and poor editorial, which isn't a surprise. Seemingly, that's the only way you can make money on the web ... not investing in content, but investing in scandal."
The mansions file isn't the only false story about Singh circulating online.
One headline, spotted by Radio-Canada's Jeff Yates, claims Singh is wanted for terrorism in 15 countries.
It links to an article authored by the site Native Born Canadian Movement (NBCM) which claims Singh "is part of the Sikh militant group." The rest of the story is simply a copy-paste of the Wikipedia entry on the 1985 Air India bombing.
Singh has gone on the record saying that he accepts the Air India inquiry's conclusion that Talwinder Singh Parmar was the mastermind behind the deadly mid-air bombing that killed hundreds of Canadians — and that he thinks it's inappropriate for some Sikhs to glorify Parmar by displaying his photo. His denunciation came after he initially displayed some reservations on the subject in an interview with the CBC's Terry Milewski in 2017.
The NBCM article, published back September, has been shared more than 5,700 times on Facebook and has generated more than 17,000 "likes," comments and shares on the social network site, which far outnumbers the NBCM's actual Facebook following.
NBCM makes its views clear on its YouTube channel: "This organization is simple ... if you are born in Canada you are a native-born Canadian ... this group is about standing up for native-born Canadians first."
Last week, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould made a list of announcements regarding potential threats to Canada's democratic process, including the creation of a five-member panel tasked with sounding the alarm if it sees evidence the October federal election is being undermined by foreign actors.