Feds reportedly asked Facebook to remove false article about Trudeau, but not Conservative MPs

A Privy Council staffer said the Buffalo Chronicle targeted the prime minister's character with inflammatory claims, while WeChat peddled falsehoods in Mandarin on policy issues, yet the federal government intervened to have the former removed on social media and not the latter.

Feds reportedly asked Facebook to remove false article about Trudeau, but not Conservative MPs
The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick and The Canadian Press / Justin Tang
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The federal government urged Facebook to remove a false article about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau but did not advocate the same for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole.

The Buffalo Chronicle, an American fake news publication, published a false story about the prime minister during the 2019 general election, according to testimony at the Commission on Foreign Interference.

According to The National Post, it peddled uncorroborated claims of a sex scandal involving Trudeau and a former student, which quickly became a topic of discussion at the inquiry among senior government officials. 

Without evidence, The Buffalo Chronicle said Trudeau suppressed claims he had inappropriate relations with a young student at Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy, where he taught from 1998 and 2001.

“The content might have gained significant attention were it amplified, and therefore risked threatening the integrity of the election,” according to testimony from Allen Sutherland, an employee with the Privy Council Office (PCO).

Facebook promptly removed the article out of its obligation to remove false information before an election. 

The federal government never publicized the report for fear it would amplify ‘misinformation.’

The news left Conservatives distraught after the federal government failed to intervene on Chinese ‘misinformation’ about Conservative incumbents on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform.

From September 9 through 12, several WeChat news accounts peddled the false narrative that Erin O’Toole “wants to break off relations with China.” One article described him as the "Canadian version of Trump." 

The Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force (SITE) published a federal memo, Foreign Interference Threats, one week before the 2021 general election. It confirmed Chinese state media slandered Conservative incumbents during the election period.

At the China inquiry, a lawyer representing Conservative MP Michael Chong highlighted the stark difference in the government’s approach to the false report on Trudeau and multiple false articles concerning O’Toole.

Sutherland said the Buffalo Chronicle targeted the prime minister's character with inflammatory claims, while WeChat peddled falsehoods in Mandarin on policy issues.

"There was less concern about misinformation targeted at the Chinese diaspora than the English-speaking public?" asked lawyer Gib Van Ert. "I talked about the Buffalo Chronicle article as being something that was highly inflammatory and saw that it might go viral and become a national event," replied the PCO staffer.

On Wednesday, O’Toole told Commission lawyers that clandestine attacks against Conservatives in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto impacted his tenure with the Party.

In June 2022, he claimed the Conservatives lost “about eight or nine seats” due to foreign meddling, a claim he maintained during his testimony. If the party had won those seats, O’Toole said he may have had a “more sturdy leg to stand on” as Party leader.

Another article targeted former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu as “anti-Chinese” over his efforts to legislate a foreign registry.

“I have been betrayed,” said the former member of Parliament for Steveston-Richmond East, whose riding has a substantial Chinese population. It is one of four from Greater Vancouver facing sweeping allegations of foreign meddling.

Another SITE document confirmed that Chinese proxies targeted “hostile” Conservative candidates who supported a foreign-agent registry.

“You weren’t aware of any of these reports at the time?” asked Commission Counsel Matthew Ferguson. “No,” replied Chiu.

Sutherland told the Commission that government officials cannot set the threshold too low on false reports to avoid sowing doubt about Canadian democracy.

SITE members, who monitor election integrity, said they were unaware of PCO efforts to surpress the false report on Trudeau, but acknowledged it appeared on their radar mere days before the 2019 general election.

“We saw media reports … indicating that eight out of 10 of the most popular articles posted on the Buffalo Chronicle included salacious content, rumours or presumed disinformation targeting political leaders in Canada, particularly the prime minister,” said SITE member Gallit Dobner.

She called out the website for observing “very poor journalistic practices,” but did not attribute it to foreign actors.

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