The result suggested that viral disinformation taking root in online political discourse may not always transform behavior at the ballot box.
In the months leading up to the election, thousands of accounts identifying as part of the online, pro-Trump community spouted conspiracy-tinged, anti-Trudeau invective, often using the hashtag #TrudeauMustGo.
“MAGA” was the most frequently occurring expression in the bios of accounts that used the anti-Trudeau hashtag, according to analysis by Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of digital humanities and Middle East studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar. The Trump campaign slogan appeared more frequently than did “conservative” or “Canadian” or “Canada” in the bios of about 17,000 accounts that tweeted #TrudeauMustGo in a sample drawn from six different periods in September and October. “MAGA” appeared in about 21 percent of the accounts with biographical information. The figure was even higher when factoring in related keywords, such as “Trump” or “KAG,” for Keep America Great.
Among the MAGA-aligned accounts that engaged in prolific tweeting and retweeting on the #TrudeauMustGo hashtag is one that uses the name Sara Spencer, followed by flags for Canada, the U.S., England and Israel. In the account’s two-year existence, it has sent 82,000 tweets — an average of about 112 tweets per day. The profile includes images of no humans but rather stock photos of stars and a landscape paired with the text, “It is time to take back our countries.” The account retweets virulent attacks on Democrats in the United States, including former vice president Joe Biden, and appears to draw inspiration from conservative U.S. media figures, such as radio host Mark Levin.
The anti-Trudeau chorus intensified as Canadians prepared to vote on Monday. An account with no location and no human picture but thousands of followers — and whose only biographical detail was “MAGA” — invoked the anti-Trudeau rallying cry as it posted memes assailing Trudeau’s climate policy. Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan also appeared in the bio of an anti-Trudeau account whose other causes included defunding Planned Parenthood and championing Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI.
Because many of the accounts do not reveal a location, and because even a given location can be fake, researchers have struggled to determine whether the posts flowed from the U.S., as part of an external effort to influence Canada’s vote, or whether they represented the opinions of Canadian citizens who identify with Trump’s politics.
As illustrated by Monday’s mixed results, in which Trudeau secured reelection even as his party lost the popular vote, the precise impact of the MAGA-inspired fusillade is difficult to measure. As few as a quarter of Canadians use Twitter, according to findings this year.
“We don’t know what motivated different people once they were at the polls — it’s possible there were people who were motivated by the advocacy the MAGA community was putting forward online,” said Elizabeth Dubois, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Ottawa. “But certainly we didn’t see a wave of voting support that came along with it.”
But the prominence of the pro-Trump label is a sign of how online discourse in the United States flows across borders, shaping the terms of the debate in other countries. The familiar rhetoric was not limited to the Internet; in the final days of the campaign, supporters of Trudeau’s Conservative opponent, Andrew Scheer, responded to the candidate’s denunciation of the prime minister with the chant, “lock him up,” a signature line of attack against Hillary Clinton.
From North America to Europe to Western Asia, right-wing causes are enjoying amplification from accounts on Twitter that identify themselves as part of the MAGA movement, researchers have found. Some of the accounts exhibit signs of automated activity that analysts believe may point to coordinated influence operations.
Jones said his research suggests the existence of “an influence campaign designed to promote right-wing political views at important political moments” — including, in this case, an opportunity to eject a man once seen as a liberal wunderkind from the prime minister’s office in Canada.
Trudeau gained an unusual, cross-border vote of confidence from former president Barack Obama last week. But a string of scandals, including revelations that the liberal scion wore brownface and blackface years ago, tarnished his image as a tolerant leader and a foil for figures like Trump. The episodes became fodder for Scheer, as well as a far-right candidate, Maxime Bernier, who channeled Trump by inveighing against immigration on Twitter, jolting the country’s decorous political culture but ultimately losing his seat in Parliament.
A spokesman for Twitter Canada did not respond to specific questions about the #TrudeauMustGo rallying cry, instead pointing to recent blog posts about following the Canadian election on Twitter and about the company’s more general election integrity work. #TrudeauMustGo trended in July following the prime minister’s criticism of Trump for telling four minority lawmakers to “go back” to their countries. Some of the accounts were freshly created and posting at nonhuman rates, researchers found, though Twitter said at the time it found no evidence of activity by automated accounts, known as bots.
Experts on bilateral relations voiced concern about the online activity.
Gordon D. Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada under President Bill Clinton, said the participation of pro-Trump accounts in smearing Trudeau was “somewhere between unfortunate and outrageous.”
The two countries have been the closest of allies, making the clash of their current leaders all the more jarring. Trump has attacked Trudeau as “dishonest” and “weak,” though he congratulated his counterpart on his “wonderful” victory in a tweet early Tuesday.
Although Obama’s decision to endorse Trudeau was unusual, Giffin said, it was “out in the open, based on his personal interactions with the prime minister.” Anonymous actors on social media are engaged in a different sort of enterprise, he said, noting, “it’s interference.”
A spokeswoman for the Liberal Party declined to comment.
The prominence of pro-Trump accounts in conversations about global flash points is not limited to Canada. Analysts say similar activity has supported other right-wing causes, including the effort to extricate Britain from the European Union without a deal — known as a hard Brexit — and the push for regime change in Iran.
“It’s a global effort,” said Geoff Golberg, the founder of a social media mapping firm called Social Forensics. “Whether the accounts are Iran-focused or Canada-focused, they’re working toward the same initiative — boosting flag-bearing nationalist types.”
The question of origins stumped researchers at McGill University in Montreal, where analysis was unable to confirm that the MAGA-aligned accounts active around #TrudeauMustGo were operated by real Canadians but also couldn’t conclude the opposite, said Oleg Zhilin, the technology lead for the university’s Digital Democracy Project.
Some of the accounts in question exhibited interest in the American election in 2016, but others did not, Zhilin said. “Some were going on about cat photos.”
Recent changes to the Canada Elections Act expanded restrictions on political advertising and cracked down on false statements about candidates. But opportunities for enforcement are lacking when online actors reside beyond the country’s borders. A BuzzFeed News-Toronto Star investigation found that a website called the Buffalo Chronicle was publishing viral — and debunked — stories about Canadian politics ahead of Monday’s vote. It is operated from Buffalo.