North99, a political advocacy group founded by former Liberal Party staffers, has been using online petitions, some of them misleadingly labelled, to collect supporters’ contact information ahead of the 2019 election.
While this does not violate any anti-spam laws, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, it does raise questions about how clear the group is being with its supporters.
Launched in the summer of 2017, Toronto-based North99 is one of a number of third-party advertisers — groups that advocate for political action but are not affiliated with a specific political party. Though these kinds of organizations have always played a role in Canadian politics, the rise of social media have allowed new, savvy players that can’t necessarily fund a national TV ad campaign to enter the space and have growing influence online.
North99’s Facebook page has some 94,000 subscribers, but its reach on social media is considerably larger, according to social media analytics tool BuzzSumo. In the week of July 2–8, for example, the page generated 224,000 interactions on Facebook, more than half as many as conservative advocacy page Ontario Proud, even though that page has more than four times as many subscribers, at 431,000.
People who sign a petition from North99 may think they’re advocating on an issue — such as backing abortion rights or universal health care — but some of these petitions never get delivered to anyone. Instead, they’re used solely to gather information about the people who signed them, including their email address and postal code, ahead of the 2019 election — something that’s not clearly communicated on the site.
For instance, issue pages say “10,000 signatures needed” or “sign the petition,” but elsewhere use more ambiguous language, such as “Show your support … by adding your name below.”
‘First step in the door’
Taylor Scollon, one of North99’s founders, said some of the petitions are used to learn more about supporters and the issues they care about, but others are indeed sent to officials in an attempt to create impact. A petition calling for increased gun control, for example, sent 35,000 signatures to Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair.
“A lot of them are petitions that send a letter to their local representative or a decision maker that’s important on that file,” said Scollon. “Some of them are just to identify where people stand on a certain issue. It’s a first step in the door for people who are aligned with us on issues, and once they’ve signed up we engage them further.”
Some petitions on North99’s site prompt users to “sign” with their name and email address, but then add them to a completely different form. North99 uses ActionNetwork, a platform for organizing grassroots movements, to host dozens of petitions and surveys.
By analyzing the HTML code of North99’s site, CBC News-Radio Canada was able to determine that forms on the site collecting signatures for one petition often added those emails to an entirely different petition on ActionNetwork.
For example, a page soliciting signatures for a petition to support abortion rights in Canada sent users’ names to a petition against development on Ontario’s greenbelt. A petition opposing corporate subsidies added users’ emails to a petition about cuts in child welfare programs.
In all of these cases, it was impossible for a user to know which petition they were actually supporting.
Scollon said that forms adding data to the wrong petition was an unintentional error.
‘Where elections are won or lost’
In the last few months, North99 has purchased hundreds of Facebook ads, many of which drove people to the petitions or surveys. Scollon said the group has spent about $6,500 on advertising this year.
CBC News was able to analyze 687 ads purchased by North99 in Facebook’s political ad archive. About 65 per cent of those ads, or 445 in all, were purchased in the month of June, just ahead of new spending rules that limit the amount of money third-party groups can spend on advertising in the weeks leading up to the election. The number of North99’s ads has decreased significantly since the rules came into effect: Only 66 ads have run since the start of July, according to Facebook’s ad library.
Along with a trove of emails, the site’s petitions and surveys allow North99 to collect valuable data about their supporters, including which issues they’re passionate about and, using their postal code, the general area where they live.
This kind of information is invaluable to political campaigns, according to Dennis Matthews, vice-president at political consultancy Enterprise Canada who previously worked on the Conservative Party of Canada’s 2015 campaign.
“What they’re most interested in is understanding what bigger groups or demographics might be open to their message, and how do they persuade them,” Matthews explained. “This might be suburban moms, or it might be retirees in a certain area. Think of broader demographic groups — that’s where elections are won or lost.”
In fact, it’s a strategy that Geoff Sharpe — one of North99’s founders — wrote about in a personal blog post from 2012.
“Successful social media strategy is not just about engagement – it’s about building lists of likely supporters and influencers, targeting them with specific messages and using this information to inform their outreach efforts,” Sharpe wrote. “Social media is field organizing, not one guy with a microphone.”