Immigration Canada is amidst a censorship controversy after it asked Facebook and Twitter to delete a Toronto Sun article alleging it contained "serious errors of fact" on Canada's refugee system. According to newly released documents, both social media giants denied the request as the article wasn't their proprietary property.
On Wednesday, three political aides acting as "communication directors" for the department would not comment on an attempt to censor Facebook and Twitter links to a 2021 Sun column critical of the government. According to Blacklock's Reporter, the aides implicated in the failed scheme did not answer questions.
"The article in question was mine," wrote Lorne Gunter, a longtime Sun columnist. He accused Immigration Canada aides of going to 'extraordinary lengths' to censor his article, stating they tried to block the readership of his September 26, 2021, column headlined, "Liberals To Make Immigration To Canada Much Easier."
An unnamed "director of communications" contacted Facebook and Twitter on September 27, 2021, to demand they delete links to Gunter's column, mistakenly claiming it contained "serious errors of fact."
The Immigration Department linked the request to the article, stating, "[it risked the] independence…[and] the integrity of the refugee determination system." The Board nor the Toronto Sun responded to questions from The Canadian Press.
Government records indicate that Marjolaine Provost, Aarin Masson and Alexander Cohen acted as communications directors with Immigration Canada and the IRB in September 2021. All three refused to comment on Wednesday, reported Blacklock's Reporter.
"The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) asked my editors to 'correct' or pull my column, which the editors courageously refused to do," wrote Gunter. "When that route failed, we have now learned, the then-director of communications for the Board approached the big social media platforms to ask that they take down any posting of my column and prohibit users from linking to it."
The column cited a secret September 20, 2021, staff email by the CEO of the Board that proposed loosening guidelines to permit more refugees to enter the country.
"I had the confidential email," wrote the Sun columnist. "Nonetheless, they still tried to have it banned as misinformation because it embarrassed them."
According to Blacklock's Reporter, this marked the first known attempt by a political aide to invoke federal authority in demanding social media companies censor links to news content.
From January 2020 to February 2023, Ottawa requested social media companies remove 214 posts, according to documents tabled in Parliament at the request of Conservative MP Dean Allison, as first reported by Rebel News. They removed half the posts for reasons including impersonation or copyright violations.
Thursday's disclosure follows a 2022 proposal by a federal task force to grant broad cabinet powers to censor legal internet content as misinformation, including "misleading political communications." Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez detailed the proposal in minutes of an Expert Advisory Group on Online Safety he appointed.
"A range of harmful content was said to be important to scope in including fraud, cyberbullying, mass sharing of traumatic incidents, defamatory content, propaganda, false advertising and misleading political communications," he said, according to the minutes.
"Many experts voiced concern over misinformation and disinformation and highlighted it was not included. They stressed that Canadians' ability to have conversations about basic policy disagreements had been severely impacted and complicated by disinformation," he said.
"They explained it erodes the foundations of democracy, polarizes people and reduces social dialogue to confrontational encounters."
While Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and LinkedIn all complied with requests to remove posts that infringed on copyright or company policies, they did not abide by requests to remove posts that government entities perceived as offensive.
According to public reports since 2011, Google received 1,347 requests from Canadian governments to remove Instagram posts.
Between January 2022 and June 2022, Google removed 73 YouTube posts primarily because of defamation, privacy and security concerns, adult content, bullying, and harassment. During the same period, Meta restricted access to 2,859 posts for many reasons, including two on Health Canada consumer policy reports on unsafe health practices.
Allison's query asked for any attempted or successful requests by any federal agency, including the CBC, to have user-generated content on social media removed, altered or otherwise censored through direct contact with social media companies.
The Privy Council Office (PCO) previously denied asking to remove social media content. However, documents submitted to the Public Order Emergency Commission indicated that PCO staff requested to censor Freedom Convoy participants' social media posts.
According to data provided by the federal government, Health Canada contacted Facebook at least three times to demand the removal of posts with 'disinformation about the lifting COVID-19 restrictions.'