The social media battle to beat Trudeau

Advocacy groups with pro-oil messages are scrambling to counter the union-backed groups that thrived in 2015

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A demonstration organized by Canada Proud near Parliament Hill on June 18, 2019 (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Jeff Ballingall is smiling as his team inflates a big plastic banana with #TrudeauIsBananas printed on its side, on the busy pedestrian mall across the corner from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa office.

A woman with a camera around her neck is snapping pictures as young people in banana costumes hand out anti-Trudeau stickers and bookmarks to the lunchtime crowd.

Ballingall, 33, is a rising star in the conservative movement. In 2016, he founded Ontario Proud, the Facebook group that played a big role in taking down Kathleen Wynne, engaging millions of Ontarians with online videos and memes.

He now wants to do the same to Justin Trudeau with Canada Proud, which is why he has hired a half-dozen young people at $20 an hour to put on banana costumes and hand out stickers and pamphlets listing Trudeau’s “top five slip-ups.”

Ballingall, a former Conservative staffer and Sun News employee, has plans to do a lot more in the upcoming election, but those plans depend on money.

“We’ve got to raise a lot more money,” he says. “What’s really good for us, though, is small donations. We raised $10,000 in the last two days from people raising $25, $50, which is good because that’s something I wanted to do more of in the provincial election and we didn’t. So that’s encouraging, and hopefully we get some bigger guys to come back on board, too.”

READ MORE: In Ontario, Doug Ford’s rule-by-antagonism begins

Before the Ontario election that made Doug Ford premier, Ballingall was also talking about small donors, but when he filed his paperwork with Elections Ontario, it told a different story. Ontario Proud spent $460,000 in the provincial campaign, mostly received from developers who wanted Ford to ease environmental rules for housing developments. One company alone, Mattamy Homes, gave Ballingall $100,000.

So who is paying for the young people in the banana suits? Ballingall won’t say. But he has been looking for money in Alberta, where some people with deep pockets and no patience with the government of Justin Trudeau seem to have plans for the election coming this fall.

Ballingall, like most people who run third-party advocacy groups, doesn’t name donors except when required by election laws. Until June 30, when a regulated pre-election period begins, anyone, including foreign entities, is free to secretly pay for political messages through Facebook groups, TV ads or text spamming.

Since the last election, advocacy groups with pro-oil-industry messages have grown rapidly online, sharing memes and videos attacking Trudeau and environmentalists, creating a new national Facebook constituency.

That new force looks set to make the 2019 election markedly different from the 2015 election, which was dominated by third-party spending by union-backed third-party groups.

Elections Canada records show labour and environmental groups spent more than $5 million on election ads during the 2015 campaign, which doesn’t include the millions spent by Engage Canada (a group backed by labour union Unifor) that pulled its ads when the campaign began, at which point they would have had to publicly disclose donors.

Conservative groups spent little more than $100,000, which means they were outspent by progressive groups 50 to one.

RELATED: The top 10 third-party spenders of the 2015 election campaign

Conservative insiders say Stephen Harper called the election when he did, initiating an unusually long 78-day campaign, partly to trigger Elections Act rules that put a cap on the amount unions could spend attacking him.

The Liberals have since rewritten the election laws, regulating third-party spending in the pre-election period, which begins June 30 and runs until the writ is dropped, and capping it at $1,023,400. A cap of $511,700 will apply during the actual campaign.

Voters will eventually see donor lists. If the federal election is anything like the recent Ontario and Alberta elections, there will be a lot of money from organized labour and a lot of money from the oil patch, where Trudeau’s environmental legislation has infuriated rig workers and executives alike.

Bernard Rudny, a Toronto communications consultant who works with non-profits, tracked Facebook engagements (likes, comments, shares) for 75 days this spring, focusing on the top 52 groups concerned with climate or energy. He discovered that conservative Facebook groups—like Canada Proud and Elect Conservatives—are beating progressive groups by about five to one.

These groups all produce memes and videos on the benefits of petroleum, attack Trudeau and other politicians and environmentalists whom they see as enemies. Most of them did not exist during the last election.

Critics on the left say it’s astroturfing, where corporate money is used to create the illusion of a grassroots network.

Rick Smith of the left-wing Broadbent Institute says the phenomenal growth of the groups could only have happened with lots of money, because the social network has changed its algorithms so that it is difficult to get into people’s feeds without paying.

“You can’t grow a network on Facebook anymore without spending money. It’s impossible to grow a significant reach without spending money. And given the size of the Proud network on social media, it’s clear they’ve spent significant amounts of money.”

And leaked documents show that resource companies have been using aggressive social media strategies to win public support for controversial projects.

READ MORE: High price of buying in: Oil-friendly Indigenous groups are disparaged as ‘sellouts’

In 2014, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, Edelman, advised TransCanada, the company then (ultimately unsuccessfully) trying to build the Energy East pipeline, to learn from “the more aggressive politics and policy fights in the U.S.”

Edelman’s “Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document,” which was obtained by and made public by Greenpeace, advised the firm to build a “supporter matrix” and turn it into a “robust digital grassroots coalition” to counter online campaigns by environmental groups.

“Companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and Halliburton (and many more) have all made key investments in building permanent advocacy assets and programs to support their lobbying, outreach and policy efforts.” Such an asset “can be used again, significantly increasing the [return on investment] of the endeavour,” the report says.

Edelman advised TransCanada to put pressure on pipeline opponents, “distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.”

It is a model that Canadian resource firms seem to have embraced by funding groups that advocate for oil and gas projects and attack environmentalists as foreign-funded radicals.

Resource Works, an industry-funded British Columbia organization that pushes for petroleum projects, is pursuing a similar strategy.

A strategy document obtained by Maclean’s shows its priority for 2019 is to “work with major groups on showing the contributions and risks of jeopardizing B.C.’s and Alberta’s oil sands, oil and gas pipelines and LNG and natural gas.” Part of the plan is to put pressure on environmentalists. “Put more scrutiny on organizations that are going after resource sector—transparency of the donors, publicize,” the document says.

RELATED: Don’t count on Jason Kenney’s pipeline promise

Stewart Muir, executive director of Resource Works, stood on stage in Calgary on June 7 with Alberta’s premier Jason Kenney when Kenney held a roundtable with industry leaders to plan a $30-million war room to advocate for the industry and fend off attacks by its opponents. Also on stage was Vivian Krause, whose research tracing the foreign funding of environmental groups has energized pro-oil forces.

Muir has frequently promoted Krause’s controversial research—which suggests that Canadian environmental groups are funded by Americans who want to avoid competition from Canada.

“At one level, this is the story of how American money was used to weaponize eco-radicals on Canada’s west coast, resulting in economic advantage for the good ole USA. Criminal that it’s still happening,” he tweeted on April 13.

Documents obtained by Maclean’s show, though, that Resource Works is partly funded by Devon Energy, an Oklahoma oil company that donates millions to American Republicans. Devon provided Resource Works with $27,500 of its projected budget of $505,000 in 2019.

Muir says in an interview that his organization is connecting with people in resource industries because they are passionate about their ability to make a living.

“I think a lot of people are shocked that resource people are standing up for their livelihoods,” he says. “I know there’s people who are uncomfortable with new forms of democratic expression. I think when you look at the Canadians I interact with every day, and the anxiety they have about the future, I’m sure there would be those in the political arena who see that as a threat.”

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer thinks he can actually build a pipeline

Oil money has also contributed to the network of Proud groups across Canada, which have been linked to Ballingall’s Ontario Proud.

Elections records in New Brunswick show that the Proud organization in that province—which was founded by a former New Brunswicker resident in Calgary—was funded during the 2018 provincial election by the Manning Centre (the respected think tank founded by Reform Party founder Preston Manning) and the Modern Miracle Network, a Calgary-based non-profit corporation spearheaded by Michael Binnion, a petroleum CEO who tirelessly promotes the industry and attacks its critics on social media.

Binnion, who tried unsuccessfully to launch a fracking industry in Quebec, is reported to have raised money for Quebec Fier, a similar Quebec Facebook group that runs ads attacking federal and provincial Liberals. Binnion is on the board of the Manning Centre.

Binnion says the media missed a key story of the 2015 election, which was the rise of American-style political action committees in Canada—hundreds of groups working to help elect the Liberals. Conservatives are now trying to catch up, he says.

“There’s an order-of-magnitude difference in numbers and there’s an order-of-magnitude difference in money, but I would say the story of the 2019 election would be it won’t be zero. It might only be five to 10 per cent of what we saw from the Liberals in 2015, but it won’t be zero.”

Troy Lanigan, president of the Manning Centre, says his group may pay for ads in the election. “Possibly,” he says. “Conservatives don’t have a fraction of the amount of money that the political left does in Canada. Certainly I think you’ll see something from the energy sector.”

Pre-election ad for the 2019 Canadian Federal Election by Shaping Canada’s Future, a Conservative backed third party advertiser (Shaping Canada’s Future/Canadian Election Ads Archive/YouTube)

The biggest player so far is Shaping Canada’s Future, which ran anti-Trudeau ads during the Toronto Raptors’ NBA Finals, where they faced off with anti-Scheer ads paid for by Engage Canada. Shaping Canada’s Future is a mysterious Calgary-based group registered by a former Jason Kenney organizer who also registered Shaping Alberta’s Future, which spent $300,000 in the Alberta election, with big donations from oil companies.

Observers also expect Kenney’s $30-million war room will play a role in the federal election with advertisements that Elections Canada has no authority to regulate for constitutional reasons.

“It is very likely that the war room will strategically message during the federal election,” says Thomas Lukaszuk, who was deputy premier of Alberta under Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford and is now a frequent critic of Kenney’s government.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) plans to register as a third-party group in this election for the first time. That’s both because of the new rules, and also, industry watchers say, because the group has been more outspoken recently. The group’s shift is either because CEO Tim McMillan’s style is more political than his predecessor’s, because Shell, a company with significant renewable assets, sold its stake in the oil sands, or because Trudeau’s environmental policy, although it is attacked as soft by environmentalists, has stiffened the spines of the oil patch.

For whatever reason, CAPP is now delivering a more strident message, and it plans to run a federal advertising campaign similar to the one it ran in Alberta, Vote Energy, which didn’t endorse any candidates, but which pushed policies advocated by Kenney.

CAPP communications vice-president Stacey Hatcher says the organization felt it had to register. “The reason for that is we feel pretty strongly that energy is going to be a big topic of discussion. It certainly has been already. We’re an important voice to be heard as a part of all of that, and we couldn’t go away and put our pens down for the next couple of months.”

RELATED: The de facto veto on building pipelines in Canada

Hatcher says the organization has done a lot of work to make sure that it complies with the Canada Elections Act, which, in addition to imposing spending limits, includes laws against organizations sharing information with political parties or candidates, or secretly colluding with one another.

Political veterans think there is plenty of potential for mischief on both sides of the partisan divide, since third-party groups will want to target their messages effectively at swing ridings, which are a moving target during an election.

Conservatives complained bitterly after the last election, suggesting the Commissioner of Canada Elections, which is in charge of investigating election violations, stood by while left-leaning third-party groups like Leadnow helped defeat Conservative candidates.

And Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has been complaining, calling Elections Canada “Liberal lapdogs,” lambasting it for failing to prosecute SNC-Lavalin for making illegal donations between 2004 and 2011, and a social media influencer campaign that the agency cancelled when it discovered that some of the influencers it hired had previously attacked Conservatives and voiced support for Trudeau.

Conservative senator Linda Frum, who helped raise the alarm about third-party activists in the last election, is not confident that Elections Canada has the tools to stop collusion. “How will Elections Canada know?” she says. “In the event that they find out, and they investigate, which I question if that will even happen, what are the penalties? What will they do about it? When will they do it? It’s a big job. I’m not accusing them of incompetence. I’m questioning if we have the mechanism even set up to properly monitor this many third parties being active in this election.”

READ MORE: Alert system for foreign election interference coming

Yves Côté, the commissioner of Canada Elections, acknowledges that investigators will face new challenges in this election, because there are new rules applying to a larger group of third-party actors. But he says the agency has beefed up its intelligence and investigation units, and it has new powers to issue administrative penalties without a court process.

“There is no doubt the upcoming campaign will bring its fair share of issues, and there will always be limits to what we can achieve,” he says. “However, I am confident that with the tools we have and the steps we’ve taken to get ready, we are ready to deal with what comes up.”

Ballingall says the rise of online third parties has been positive, opening Canadian democracy to new voices that are not under the control of gatekeepers in the media. And he’s not worried about the rules that prevent the groups from co-operating with one another or with political parties. “I’m not concerned about that because we don’t need to do that. I think you’d have to be very foolish to collude. We have our job. We know what we’re doing and frankly we don’t need to talk to anyone else to do our job.”

Even if everyone plays by the rules, voters should expect to be the targets of a social media arms race. Stephen Carter, an Alberta consultant who ran campaigns for Redford and Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi, says laws restricting political donations have created a “perverse incentive,” driving money into the hands of third-party groups. “Alberta had more money in its last provincial election than we’ve ever had before. I suspect the federal election won’t be much different. We will see activity at a heightened level like we’ve never seen before.”

Clarification: The original version of this story said Michael Binnion funded Quebec Fier. He is reported to have raised money for the group