Facebook users in B.C. and Alberta have been bombarded with political ads supporting pipelines, while Ontario users of the social network are seeing attacks on Premier Doug Ford and his education policies, a CBC News analysis shows.
As the federal election approaches, industry groups, partisan advocates and unions have spent large sums of money to get their messages in front of Facebook users. But new political advertising rules that came into effect last month seem to have slowed down the spending spree.
CBC obtained 35,000 ads published this year on Facebook’s new ad library, which the social media giant created in an effort to be more transparent and regain public trust after being accused of enabling foreign actors to interfere in elections.
The archive of ads offers a glimpse into the political messaging being crafted for Canadians in an election year.
And it shows how advertisers are making use of Facebook’s ability to target audiences by location, delivering tailored messages on local issues.
In Ontario, for example, three teachers associations have been running ads critical of provincial government cuts to education. Facebook users in Alberta have been shown ads by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation urging politicians to deny equalization payments to provinces that oppose oil pipelines that would travel through their territory.
“This shows how political groups are able to use Facebook to target messages,” said Stuart Soroka, a professor of political science at Michigan University who used to teach at McGill University in Montreal.
“Facebook is an extension of what we saw in the ’90s, a capability to run regional TV ad campaigns thanks to technical changes.”
Facebook’s public ad archive expanded to Canada this year in response to Bill C-76, also known as the Elections Modernization Act. Adopted late last year, C-76 forces online companies like Facebook to disclose the political ads on their platforms and the people or groups that paid for them.
Although Facebook lets advertisers target their ads to specific audiences based on gender, age, location and interests, it doesn’t disclose what groups an ad was meant for.
It does, however, disclose what kinds of users saw the ad. So by looking at ads that were shown disproportionately to one group, you can get a rough idea of the types of messages that were aimed at them.
To find ads that were targeted by location, we looked at those that had at least 95 per cent of total views in a single province. The graphic below lists the ten most frequent words in ads that were seen overwhelmingly in specific provinces.
The top two words in Alberta-targeted ads are “pipelines” and “equalization” because of a campaign from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation with the slogan, “No pipelines? No equalization!”
“Energy” and “move” were popular words in ads targeted in B.C., mostly due to ads from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) promoting pipelines as a solution to climate change and as a contributor to the economy. CEPA ran more than 1,250 ads nationwide, 280 of which were seen only in B.C., making it Facebook’s biggest political advertiser in the province.
The province has resisted the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would increase the volume of Alberta crude carried to a port in Burnaby, B.C.
CEPA spokesperson Carla Minogue said the ad campaign is national in scope, and the high numbers for B.C. are not related to Trans Mountain resistance, but to reach users in Metro Vancouver. She said CEPA is also targeting users in the Greater Toronto Area.
“We want to reach people who are neutral in the pipeline issue and that’s where they tend to be,” she said.
In Ontario, “education,” was a top word due to the nearly 200 ads run by three teacher associations: the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. All of their ads denounced the province’s recent cuts to schools.
However, they were all outdone by North99, an advocacy group that used petitions and surveys in Facebook ads as a way to collect contact information from users.
The group’s 300 ads were shown mostly in Ontario and were highly critical of Doug Ford’s government.
But North99’s output was topped by Fair Path Forward, a Facebook page run by Canadians for Clean Prosperity, an advocacy group that supports a carbon tax as a solution to climate change. It ran 450 separate ads aimed at Facebook users in Ontario, the highest total in any province so far.
“Clean Prosperity will be running ads until the election starts, and our goal is to educate Canadians about why a carbon tax is a fair, effective and affordable way to address climate change,” said spokesperson Max Fawcett.
Facebook also discloses how much advertisers spent on ads. The biggest spender in Canada was a group called Shaping Canada’s Future, which describes itself as a “free enterprise oriented” group. It gained notoriety in June when it ran TV spots critical of the federal Liberal government during game 5 of the NBA finals. The group has spent close to $190,000 this year on Faceobok ads alone.
The group ran all of its 61 ads in June, just before the new rules about political advertising kicked in. Facebook requires that ads about social issues or politics contain a disclaimer and disclose the organization that paid for them. None of the ads by Shaping Canada’s Future had this disclaimer, despite being political, and were taken down by the social network.
Shaping Canada’s Future has so far yet to respond to CBC’s request for comment.
Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, spent more than $130,000 on 41 video ads since June urging Canadians to vote with workers in mind.
The federal Liberal and Conservative parties were the fourth and fifth biggest spenders, respectively.
New rules discouraging advertisers
Since the new advertising rules came into effect last month, the number of political and issue ads on Facebook dropped significantly, from roughly 14,000 in June to 9,500 in July.
Ads posted in June were not subject to third-party rules, which means the groups running those ads were not obligated to register with Elections Canada and publicly release their donors and spending.
One advertiser contacted by CBC said it decided to stop running Facebook ads following the introduction of the new rules out of caution. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which had run ads supporting pipelines and opposing inheritance taxes and the Liberal government’s media bailout, ran 330 ads in June, but only one in July.
“Because this is the first time this is happening in Canada, we did this out of an abundance of caution,” said Aaron Wudrick, national director of the federation. “We’ll see how things go and we might reassess in the future.”
CBC collected data on more than 36,000 ads using Facebook’s Ad Library API. We searched the API by advertiser ID numbers, which were published in Facebook’s daily Ad Library Report. Major non-political advertisers (those that sell products or services and ran at least 50 ads or spent at least $30,000 in 2019) were excluded from the analysis. These advertisers were mistakenly classified as political by Facebook’s algorithms because their ad texts may contain words associated with political issues like “environment,” “guns” and “economy.”
Data analysis was done using the Python programming language. Word frequencies were found using the Natural Language Toolkit.
Jason Kenney hopes of returning to federal politics
Well, if nothing else, we know he’s not interested in running federally.
When Alberta Premier Jason Kenney delivered his fiery “fair deal” speech last weekend, he was not only burning bridges with Ottawa but torching any lingering ambitions he may have had to become federal Conservative leader.
Oh, Kenney might have said he had no desire to return to the federal stage but the speculation has never faded since he entered provincial politics three years ago.
In a question-and-answer session on Facebook two weeks ago Kenney declared, “I have absolutely no interest or intention of pursuing federal office.”
But it was an answer that left wiggle room.
Might he have a sudden interest or intention tomorrow?
The conjecture only intensified after the federal election, which saw a bumbling Andrew Scheer unable to defeat a badly wounded Justin Trudeau.
The question around the provincial water cooler: was Kenney interested in replacing Scheer?
This was no idle speculation.
This was speculation that worked really hard.
On paper Kenney would make an ideal candidate for leader of the federal Conservatives.
Besides being a former cabinet minister and acolyte of Stephen Harper, Kenney is bilingual, a skilful organizer and tireless campaigner. Since becoming premier in April he has criss-crossed the country building alliances with other Conservative premiers. He was even called in to campaign for the Conservatives in Ontario and Manitoba during the federal election.
In many ways he already is the spiritual leader of the Conservative movement in Canada.
And Kenney is so obsessed with defeating the federal Liberals that during the Alberta election campaign he attacked Trudeau as much as he did his actual adversary, NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
This is a guy straddling two worlds: with one foot in Alberta and the other on the prime minister’s throat.
You could certainly argue Kenney’s socially conservative background would prove an impediment in a federal campaign, as Scheer discovered about his own history. But Kenney is more politically nimble than Scheer and Kenney managed to overcome that handicap in the Alberta election despite being aggressively targeted by the NDP.
Taken together it almost seemed Kenney was destined to return to federal politics.
Then came his “fair deal” speech in Red Deer last Saturday.
“Albertans have a right to be fed up,” declared Kenney. “I get it. I’m as fed up as anybody else is in this province.”
Kenney is fed up with delays in getting a new energy pipeline to the West Coast. He is fed up with “hostile and discriminatory policies that are being aimed at our province.” He is fed up with “the divisions that welled up in Canada during the Trudeau government’s first term.” He is fed up with anyone not supporting Alberta’s oilsands.
Most of all he is just fed up with Trudeau, who managed to irritate Kenney by surviving with a minority government in October’s election.
Kenney’s solution: he wants Alberta to have a “fair deal.”
That includes possibly withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, having Alberta collect its own income taxes and replacing the RCMP with an Alberta provincial police force.
He has appointed a panel of “eminent Albertans” — including former Reform Party leader Preston Manning — to see if the ideas are feasible. If they are, Kenney would put them to a vote by Albertans.
Alberta has been down this bumpy road before.
In 2001, a band of disgruntled Alberta Conservatives (including Stephen Harper, before he became a politician) was so upset after the federal Liberals won yet another election that the unhappy group wrote what came to be called the “firewall letter.”
They wanted Alberta to distance itself from Ottawa by collecting its own income taxes, forming its own provincial police force and creating an Alberta pension plan.
The idea was to make Alberta something of a western version of Quebec but this would be a province seemingly acting out of spite, not a province trying to protect a unique linguistic and cultural identity.
Ralph Klein, premier at the time, didn’t support the letter but, to quell grumblers within his own party, he did create a panel to look into the suggestions. The panel concluded that many, particularly collecting income tax and creating a provincial pension plan, would be cumbersome, expensive and unnecessary.
Here we are again, but this time the main grumbler is Alberta’s premier.
“We’ve had it with Ottawa’s indifference to this adversity,” said Kenney, referring to Alberta’s economic downturn. “Albertans have been working for Ottawa for too long, it’s time for Ottawa to start working for us.”
This is Kenney as Captain Alberta. He has wrapped himself in the provincial flag and it’s difficult to imagine how he can ever untangle himself to run one day as Captain Canada.
In Canadian history, no provincial premier has ever won a federal election to become prime minister. Premiers are seen as too parochial, too regional, too insular.
Viewed from anywhere but Alberta — and probably Saskatchewan — Kenney’s speech is arguably all three.
Stephen Harper, of course, did manage to become prime minister despite co-authoring the firewall letter. But he wasn’t premier when he wrote it.
Besides, Kenney didn’t pen a mere firewall letter; he delivered a fire-breathing speech.
In so doing, he ignited the passions of many Albertans. However, any ambitions he might have had to run federally have been reduced to ashes.
Trump public impeachment hearings opens
To the surprise of nearly everyone, there was a surprise.
The opening of the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was expected to be an effort to tell a narrative, to put into compelling context the private testimony that already has been released by the Intelligence Committee. The theory was that having the witnesses’ words said out loud – their accounts of whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals – might engage Americans in a way their words on paper never could.
That storytelling effort was in evidence during the daylong hearing Wednesday, but as it turned out, news also erupted, and during the first 90 minutes. Bill Taylor, a veteran ambassador with an unflappable demeanor and deep voice out of central casting, revealed that he had learned just last Friday that a staffer from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev had overheard a phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a political donor the president had appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
In the account relayed by Taylor, Trump was talking so loudly that he could be overheard in the restaurant on the cellphone. He reportedly asked about “investigations;” Sondland told him that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.
It was July 26, the day after the now-infamous call in which Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do “a favor.” After the call was over, the staffer asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine. “Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for,” Taylor quoted the staffer as saying.
That exchange represented an important piece of evidence bolstering the Democrats’ case that Trump pushed Ukraine to launch investigations into the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and into the 2016 campaign, holding as leverage the promise of a White House meeting and the release of millions in military aid. It showed the influence of a rogue foreign policy operation being led by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now the president’s personal attorney. It raised questions about the distance Trump last week tried to put between Sondland and himself. “I hardly know the gentleman,” he said then.
And it started the drum roll for Sondland’s testimony before the committee, scheduled for next week.
Rule One of investigations: You can never be entirely sure where they are going to lead.
The committee quickly scheduled a closed deposition on Friday with David Holmes, an aide to Taylor.
Steve Bannon: Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment strategy ‘actually quite brilliant’
Trump pushes back, refers to ‘circus’
At the White House, where he was meeting with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump dismissed the proceedings taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I’m too busy to watch it,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. That said, he did manage to post a series of tweets deriding the hearing as nothing more than a “circus” and a “fraudulent hoax conspiracy theory.”
On Capitol Hill, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff described high stakes in exploring the president’s behavior. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency, but the future of the presidency itself, and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their commander-in-chief,” the California Democrat said in the vaulted hearing room on Capitol Hill.
He referred repeatedly to the Constitution and the Founders.
Democrats had described their goal as explaining to Americans who may not have been paying much attention up to now what they believe happened between the Trump administration and Ukraine, and why it matters. The deliberate pace, with extended opening statements and then 45 minutes of uninterrupted questioning by each side, was unusual for Congress.
Republicans, meanwhile, portrayed the whole inquiry as a sham pursued by Democrats bent on overturning the results of the 2016 election. They noted that neither Taylor nor deputy assistant secretary of State George Kent had firsthand knowledge of what Trump had done; they said that made their testimony hearsay.
California Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican, sarcastically congratulated the two witnesses “for passing the Democrats’ Star Chamber auditions held for the last six weeks in the basement of the Capitol.”
They didn’t respond to that, though both denied they had a partisan agenda. They said “no” when asked specifically if they were “never-Trumpers,” those opposed to Trump from the beginning of his political climb.
This impeachment is historic, different
Impeachments are by definition momentous and historic events. An early effort to remove the forgettable Andrew Johnson in 1868 failed. More than a century later, Richard Nixon chose to resign under fire when it became clear he was going to be leaving the Oval Office, one way or another. Bill Clinton survived an impeachment trial in 1999.
But the impeachment of Trump is different from those that have gone before in some fundamental ways. For the first time, a president in the midst of running for a second term is facing the Constitution’s most serious penalty. The allegation involves not personal misbehavior, as it did with Clinton, but an abuse of power that allegedly involved threatening an allied government and encouraging foreign interference in a U.S. election.
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And the hearings are taking place when the nation’s politics are so bitterly divided that even the polarized Clinton era seems less fierce, and the time of Nixon a virtual golden age of bipartisanship.
Americans now seem divided into warring tribes, resistant to persuasion. An average of the latest national polling by FiveThirtyEight.com calculates that 48% of Americans support impeachment; 44% oppose it. That’s not significantly different from the returns in 2016, the election that put Trump in the White House. Then, 48% voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, 46% for Trump.
Whether the testimony Wednesday and the hearings that follow will change anybody’s mind isn’t yet clear.
Next up: Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine who was unceremoniously dismissed after being targeted by Giuliani, is scheduled to testify Friday.
Will there be more surprises?
Marijuana legalization gets lost in the weeds
Five Democratic states are poised to create a pot lovers’ paradise, legalizing marijuana from Pennsylvania to Connecticut.
But political infighting — especially among Democrats — could conspire to kill it.
Democratic lawmakers in New York and New Jersey are arguing over criminal justice reforms. In Connecticut, powerful religious leaders torpedoed legalization once before. And all five states must find common ground on taxes to keep up with Massachusetts, where marijuana is already legal.
The political turmoil over marijuana comes as five northeastern Democratic governors announced last month that they had reached an agreement to fully legalize marijuana. Three of the states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where Democrats are in complete control of the government — already have spent months squabbling over the specifics of complex legislation that would legalize cannabis sales.
The sharp divisions among rank-and-file lawmakers are unlikely to recede simply because the states’ governors reached a handshake agreement on broad guardrails for legalizing marijuana.
“There are a lot of details that need to get resolved and different viewpoints on the details,” said New York Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, who represents Manhattan.
“Last year there were a lot of big complex issues eating up a lot of time that, I think, made resolving marijuana legislation more difficult.”
Just one state — Illinois — has passed legislation establishing recreational sales. The other nine states that allow adults to buy weed for any reason have done so through ballot referendums. The legislative process has proven much messier. Instead of a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down from voters, every single lawmaker has an opportunity to weigh in on what legislation should look like.
The prospects for passing legalization anytime soon in Pennsylvania look particularly bleak. While Gov. Tom Wolf is a recent convert to the cause, both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans, and they’ve shown little interest in pursuing recreational marijuana sales.
“The reality is they don’t have the votes,” said Kevin Sabet, CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has been fighting legalization efforts around the country. “This is definitely not a slam dunk in any of these states. Pennsylvania — it’s a complete pipe dream that they would get this done in the legislature.”
What’s in the agreement?
The five governors only agreed on broad principles to guide their efforts. Chief among the policy recommendations is setting a similar tax rate on cannabis sales as a means of leveling the market across the region. The five governors also pledged to limit the number of licenses for cannabis businesses, craft policies to prioritize the inclusion of small business owners, develop criminal justice reform programs to improve the lives of ex-offenders and develop uniform law enforcement and public health standards for policing the industry.
Most lawmakers who support legalization praised the governors for leading on the issue. The summit was prompted in part by concerns about the vaping crisis, which has sickened more than 2,000 people and led to at least 39 deaths, according to the CDC. Most of the lung illnesses have been tied to THC vapes, primarily from the black market.
“People realize the time has come,” said New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a top legalization advocate. “The fact that it hasn’t been legalized and regulated allows the black market to put products out there that we know are hurting people.”
But the broad framework agreed to is unlikely to make it much easier to reach accord on specific policy details.
“We are going to be losing serious economic activity,” added Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), the lead sponsor of legalization legislation, pointing out that New York state residents are already buying weed from legal dispensaries. “If you go to a cannabis store in the Berkshires — a half hour from Albany — you can’t help but notice all of the license plates are from New York in the parking lot.”
Current legislative proposals diverge on policy details
The cannabis legalization proposals that have emerged from each state are unique. New Jersey’s legislation, agreed to by each of the state’s top Democrats after months of negotiation, would tax cannabis at $42 per ounce at the cultivation level. Local municipalities could impose their own taxes as well. Legislation advanced in Connecticut, which was never voted on, would have imposed a $35 per ounce tax on cultivators, plus local fees and a sales tax. Recent legislation introduced by Pennsylvania lawmakers would levy a 17.5 percent tax at the point-of-sale.
“In terms of setting a goal of being as unified as possible, that is a worthwhile exercise,” said Connecticut state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, who co-chairs the House Joint Committee on Judiciary. “Do I suspect, at the end of the day, that there will be certain pieces of this that one state wants to do one way, and other states want to do another way?
A half-dozen Democratic lawmakers and staff members in Connecticut who spoke with POLITICO indicated it would be an uphill battle just to get a cannabis legalization measure over the finish line, regardless of whatever agreement Gov. Ned Lamont hatched with his counterparts in the Northeast.
A package of three bills that would have legalized cannabis, designated new programs for marijuana-related tax revenues and blazed new criminal justice reforms collapsed after facing resistance from the state’s black and Latino faith leaders. And while lawmakers briefly floated the idea of moving a bill that would have created a ballot question on adult-use, that also stalled.
“I confess, and this is probably a good example probably of white privilege, I didn’t appreciate the ingrained resistance to legalization from communities that have been battling [with] it for so long,” said state Rep. Mike D’Agostino, a Democrat committee chairman who represents the New Haven suburbs. “We need to do a good job of going out and listening. And also saying, ‘Here’s what’s in our bills. Here’s how we’re trying to address the social justice concerns and the economic concerns.’”
Perhaps just as importantly, efforts to legalize adult use in other states require some level of common understanding between lawmakers and the chief executive.
Pennsylvania‘s Wolf publicly announced his support for cannabis legalization in September, a little less than a month before the multi-state framework was released. His appearance on the dais alongside Cuomo, Lamont and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Oct. 17 was a surprise to state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who introduced an adult use bill earlier this year.
“Was the Legislature consulted? No,” Leach told POLITICO, adding that he supported any effort on the part of Wolf to “move the ball forward.”
“There may be places where things fit together, and places where they don’t,” Leach said. “Each state needs to concentrate primarily on getting a law passed that works for our state.”
If the five northeastern states are able to overcome the formidable hurdles they face and create a sprawling five-state marijuana marketplace, it could create a tipping point in the legalization debate nationwide, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. That would mean nearly half the country would be living in states where anyone over the age of 21 can buy weed for whatever purpose they choose.
“It becomes increasingly untenable,” O’Keefe said, “to have all of this conduct be federally illegal when you have nearly 150 million people living in states where it’s legal and regulated.”
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