Facebook chief is visiting scholar on election integrity

Carleton University’s Political Management Program is doubling down on appointing senior Facebook executive Kevin Chan as a visiting scholar to work with the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative.

The decision was made despite questions being raised about Facebook’s role in the 2016 United States presidential election, the Brexit referendum battle and its refusal to ban political lies in the upcoming US presidential election.

“We expected some negative reaction,” says Professor Stephen Azzi, one of the directors and founders of the Clayton H Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management, a one-year masters programme designed to train ministers’ political staff, most of whom work on Parliament Hill, a few miles away from the university.

“We know that Facebook’s reputation suffered quite a bit after the 2016 election and the controversy about Cambridge Analytica [in the Brexit referendum]. But that’s exactly the reason why we wanted to bring someone from Facebook in to speak to us about what it has done and solicit feedback.”

Chan is head of public policy at Facebook Canada and, according to the university, “spearheaded the creation of Facebook’s Canadian Election Integrity Initiative”.

Critics of the appointment pulled no punches, with one member of parliament saying he thought the press release was satire.

“Really, it seemed so ridiculous I did not think it possible,” says MP Charlie Angus, New Democratic Party critic for ethics, who in the last parliament clashed with Chan during hearings into how Cambridge Analytica and Facebook were undermining Canadian democracy.

“Chan came to our committee after meeting with every senior minister and having his picture taken with them. He told us that he was only helping ministers like [Finance Minister Bill] Morneau learn how to get more Facebook ‘likes’ and that since he [Chan] did not spend more than 20% of his time lobbying, he did not have to register as a lobbyist under the Lobbying Act,” says Angus.

He then explained that the Lobbying Act was established for old-style lobbying during a 40-hour work week by lobbyists with flip charts. “Why would Facebook send a senior executive to help with such a trivial issue as Facebook ‘likes’?” he says.

Chan’s assurance, contained in the press release announcing his appointment, that “(i)nvesting in technology, people and partnerships is an integral part of our work to protect the integrity of elections on our platform and positively contribute to the democratic process,” did not mollify Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a non-profit, non-partisan organisation founded in 1993 that advocates for democratic reform, accountability and corporate responsibility.

“It’s a conflict of interest given that Facebook is a stakeholder on the issue. He’s not the kind of person who should be teaching students. It amazed me that while announcing his appointment, Carleton [University] did not at least indicate that people and organisations with other viewpoints would be included,” Conacher says.

Although visiting researchers are given library privileges, office space and e-mail, Chan has told Azzi they will not be necessary.

Azzi told University World News he was not sure what impact and what role Chan would have in the programme. When asked a hypothetical question, “What would happen if a student in the programme who had a strong background in computer science decided that for a project he or she would try to recreate Facebook’s news feed algorithm?” he says: “That would be between the student and his professor. That would not involve Mr Chan. He’s not teaching any courses or marking student material.”

While Carleton University Journalism Professor Dwayne Winseck, who heads the university’s Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, isn’t too concerned that professors will be looking over their shoulders when approving research assignments, he sees the bringing of Chan into the university tent as part of a broader problem.

The Political Management Program was established with funds supplied by oil-man Clayton Riddell and was influenced by Preston Manning, who led the right-wing Reform Party of Canada between 1987 and 2000 before setting up the conservative think tanks, Manning Foundation for Democratic Education and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

Allowing corporate interests in

“Carleton long ago crossed the Rubicon of allowing corporate interests into the tent. The university is chock a block full of endowments and chairs established by people who made their money in the oil and the tar sands [in Alberta],” says Winseck. “It’s not enough to single out Facebook. It’s got to be part of a broader struggle against the corporatisation of the university,” he says.

Chan and his bosses, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, face legal issues in Canada, both Angus and Conacher told University World News.

After Chan’s meeting with Morneau became public, Democracy Watch filed a complaint with the Integrity Commissioner. “We filed it almost two years ago, but we expect that Mr Chan will be found in contravention of the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct,” says Conacher.

Last May, after refusing a summons to appear before the parliamentary ethics committee, at Angus’s urging, the committee voted to find Zuckerberg and Sandberg in contempt of parliament.

“For the first and only time in Canadian history,” says Angus, “a parliamentary committee took this step. If they step foot in Canada and the new committee chair authorises it, they could be arrested by the officer of parliament.”

Angus believes the Facebook executives’ dismissive attitude toward parliamentary rules and Canada’s laws on lobbying are an insult to Canadians’ intelligence. “It seems like a frat boy culture. One in which domestic laws are considered quaint, so 20th century. How do you get to portray them as having integrity on examining elections?”

He said he thinks the digital giants, Facebook, Google and Amazon, “are to citizens’ rights what big tobacco was to public health. They were once involved with funding university research and they skew research outcomes.”

For his part, Azzi remains sanguine. “Both sides, the Political Management Program and Facebook, remained committed” to Chan’s involvement, Azzi wrote in an e-mail.

Despite the fact that since coming to power a year and a half ago, Ontario’s Conservative government has imposed new rules on universities in regard to funding student activities (which were blocked by the courts) and changing the funding mechanism to “performance based funding”, Ross Romano, the minister of colleges and universities, responded to a request from University World News for a comment by saying: “As universities in Ontario are autonomous, neither the minister, nor ministry, have a comment on this matter.”