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Be aware of potential B.C. election interference, don’t exaggerate risk: expert

UBC’s Chris Tenove says automatically dismissing opposing views as fake also damages democracy

Concerns about foreign interference using digital tools including AI in the upcoming provincial election should be taken seriously, says an expert studying the effects of digital media on democracy.

But Chris Tenove, interim director for UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, also warns against exaggerating the potential effects of such campaigns, appealing for open, good-faith dialogue.

British Columbians will join billions in countries around the globe, including the United States and India, to elect new national and regional leaders in 2024.

The World Economic Forum recently released its Global Risks Report 2024 which identifies AI-derived misinformation with its implications for social conflict as the biggest global risk for the next two years.

Tenove, who predicts a “wild ride in global politics,” says a range of foreign and domestic actors would be interested in manipulating B.C.’s election.

“B.C. is a small target, but there are those kinds of bigger geostrategic aims to undermine people’s confidence in governments and Canada is a vocal supporter of Ukraine,” he said in alluding to the potential for Russian interference.

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Tenove also pointed to continuing political tensions between Canada and India following the shooting death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey in June 2023. While these tensions have played out primarily at the federal level between Ottawa and India’s Hindu nationalistic government, they could also play out in B.C.

Recent months have also seen reporting about ultimately unconfirmed election meddling by China in Vancouver’s 2022 municipal election, reporting Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim has dismissed as groundless and racially motivated. People “wouldn’t be having this conversation” if he were a “Caucasian male,” he said at the time.

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Interference in the provincial election could also come from sources within B.C.

“There is always the possibility that folks, who want to influence how we are talking about an issue in B.C. will try muddy the information environment here,” Tenove said.

While concerns about misinformation, disinformation and outright fake news have always posed challenges to democratic governance, the proliferation of social media and the emergence of AI have further raised these concerns.

Two developments have worsened this problem, Tenove said: lack of concern about addressing the issue from social media platforms themselves; and AI-technologies allowing the creation of content increasingly less distinguishable from the real thing.

“It’s in the hands of more and more people, who are able to create the kind of convincing and maybe tailored content,” Tenove said.

But if societies and countries are struggling to address “real legitimate risks” to their information environments, Tenove also warns against fatalistic attitudes about the state of democracy or, at the other extreme, unduly imposed censorship.

“(We) also don’t want to exaggerate whether some of these information campaigns are either going to dramatically change, who we vote for or what we believe,” he said. “(It’s) quite hard to get people to change, who they are going to vote for.

“A lot of the real important work for all of us going forward is finding ways as societies to have conversations about these issues, possibly when we disagree, but not just dismissing the other side as being duped by false information, but listening and really paying attention to what they are saying.”

-with files from Canadian Press


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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