How 3rd-party advertisers want to influence your vote in Toronto’s municipal election

Six third party advertisers — from viral right-wing powerhouse Ontario Proud to a group promoting ranked ballots — are all trying to sway your vote in this fall’s municipal election.

And it’s the first time you’re being told who they are.

Before 2018, outside advertisers supporting or opposing municipal candidates didn’t have to identify themselves and could spend unlimited amounts of cash without reporting their business to the government. The province changed that last year, forcing third parties to register with each city’s clerk.

It’s a situation municipal governance experts say is good news for voters, providing more transparency and strict spending limits for outside advertisers while still allowing political discourse — and it’s also prompting questions about how third party spending and social media savvy could shape the face of Toronto’s next council.

Who’s registered as a third-party?

In Toronto, it’s a mixed bag.

Four corporations are registered, including Ontario Proud, the right-wing group that made headlines for targeting the since-defeated Liberals with viral memes and videos in the last provincial election.

There’s also Progress Toronto, an organization supporting progressive council candidates, the Campaign For Public Education, a group campaigning for needs-based funding for public education, and the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, which is lobbying for ranked ballots in the next election.

One trade union is also registered — the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 58, most recently known for being on the picket line outside the Canadian National Exhibition this summer.

And there’s a lone individual: Brampton businessperson Gurpreet Pabla, who’s also the founder of a holiday toy drive.

How do they operate?

In a city the size of Toronto, third party advertisers have a maximum spending limit of $25,000.

They can use that on any type of ad campaign that supports or opposes candidates, or yes/no questions on a ballot — which could mean on television, online, in print, or on a flyer or sign.

Posting on social media doesn’t count, unless money is changing hands.

That’s good news for Ontario Proud, which amassed a higher follower count on Facebook than all three major parties combined during the provincial election.

The group’s page, only launched in February 2016, is now teetering close to 400,000 likes. It’s a staggering support base compared to the “like” counts of, say, the mayoral race frontrunners, with John Tory at nearly 45,000 and Jennifer Keesmaat at roughly 2,600.

So far on a municipal level, the group has targeted Keesmaat multiple times — including a Facebook post suggesting she would “destroy” Ontario — along with several longtime left-wing councillors (Keesmaat’s team is “aware of these attacks”).

Founder Jeff Ballingall says the goal is generating change on council, to bring in “fresh voices” who are going to “put taxpayers first.

“We haven’t spend a cent on advertising yet,” Ballingall adds. “All of that is organic posting.”

Progress Toronto is taking a similar digital approach, including a campaign being shared on social media to elect “progressive champions,” instead of what they see as “villains” known for working with Premier Doug Ford.

“We’re doing different things in different wards,” adds Michal Hay, executive director for the group, which has roughly 3,300 “likes” on Facebook. That could mean online ads focusing on some candidates, and dropping flyers off at homes in certain neighbourhoods with information about councillors’ voting records.

Michael Urban, chairperson for the Ranked Ballot Initiative, says his group is hoping not to spend any money at all, but registered just in case they want to promote candidates who support their views.

“We wanted to have the flexibility so if we did decide to boost some posts on social media, or send some flyers, we’d have that ability,” he says.

What do the changes mean for voters?

Third-party advertising has always been around, but the province’s changes are now bringing transparency for voters, says Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of political science at York University.

“By placing expenditure limits on it, they don’t want any particular group to swamp the discourse,” adds Zack Taylor, an assistant professor of political science at Western University.

Taylor says the timing makes sense, since the rise of online advertising has changed the game. And he says strict spending limits could give social media savvy groups an advantage.

In a city as large as Toronto, $25,000 isn’t much when it comes to swaying voters with pricey newspaper advertisements or billboards, Taylor explains, “but it could buy you a lot of Facebook ads.”

Pilon says problems could arise if voters still aren’t clear on where third party ads are coming from, since at the municipal level, there aren’t political parties offering cues to which groups support which objectives.

“The concern at the municipal level is a well-financed group could have disproportionate influence on the outcome, precisely because voter information is so low, and voter turnout is so low, compared to other levels of government,” he adds.

The bottom line? This is the first municipal election with this kind of transparency and regulation for third parties, and what that means for voters remains to be seen.

“Ontario is a test case for what the effects of really tight limits are … When the dust settles after October 22, we’ll be able to find out,” says Taylor.

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