Taylor Scollon says he knows what Canadians on Facebook want: content about political issues that gets them fired up.
“Our mission is to advance a policy agenda, and so we tailor our content to that. That’s what’s rewarded on social media platforms,” he said.
Scollon is one of the people behind North99, a nonprofit that uses articles, memes, and videos to advance a left-wing policy agenda, primarily on Facebook.
Over the past year or so, that has largely taken the form of attacking Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his policy decisions. And on Facebook, it can get more traction than traditional news coverage.
“That’s what people click on and share more so than a story published by a newspaper … and our objective just happens to align more with the imperatives of social media platforms,” Scollon said.
North99 is part of a new wave of advocacy media — both on the left and right — that is reaching more Canadians than ever before, thanks to savvy approaches to Facebook. These pages and associated websites are generating millions of shares, reactions, and comments, and at times eclipsing the country’s biggest newspapers and broadcasters on the platform, according to a new analysis by BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star.
But the lines between traditional news reporting — with clear editorial standards and accountability — and these new media players can be difficult to discern, especially when you're distractedly scrolling through your newsfeed, according to experts.
Elizabeth Dubois, a researcher at the University of Ottawa specializing in social media and politics, said the average person might struggle to differentiate between news and advocacy on Facebook.
“What we see in the Facebook context is that people are not great at differentiating what the source of the content is and the intention behind that content. People are sometimes unable to figure out why the content shows up in their feed,” said Dubois.
With more than 23 million Canadians on Facebook, the platform will be a major political battleground for partisan media in the run-up to October’s federal election. The analysis by BuzzFeed News and the Star shows that players on the right are better positioned to engage Canadian voters, largely because of tight networks of pages that cross-promote content and potentially reach millions in a matter of hours.
The dominant partisan media player is Ontario Proud, a conservative not-for-profit advocacy group that rose to prominence during the 2018 Ontario provincial election. On Facebook, its flagship page consistently generates more engagement than the main pages for some of Canada’s largest national media outlets. From January 2018 through June of this year, Ontario Proud earned more shares, reactions, and comments for its Facebook content (17.9 million) than Global News (15.66 million), National Post (4.59 million), the Toronto Star (4 million), APTN (3.33 million), or the Globe and Mail (2.96 million), according to data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics service.
And while CBC News had the most overall engagement at 24.16 million, Ontario Proud was only slightly behind CTV News (18.6 million).
Ontario Proud’s impressive engagement was achieved even though it has a smaller audience to start with on Facebook. All major news outlets, with the exception of the National Post and APTN, have far more Facebook fans than Ontario Proud. CBC News, for instance, has five times as many Facebook fans (2.29 million) as Ontario Proud (432,000). But Ontario Proud’s content received almost 50% more shares (9.11 million) than CBC (6.09 million) in the past 18 months. (It’s unknown how much of this engagement was a result of pages running ads to promote specific posts.)
One reason partisan pages can generate more engagement with far fewer fans than established national media is the type of content they share. Partisan pages focus on memes and video, while traditional media tend to link to articles, which don’t perform as well on Facebook. The partisan pages also excel at appealing to emotion and identity, key factors in generating engagement on social media.
Internal Ontario Proud documents obtained by the Star and BuzzFeed News detail how it used a mix of Facebook pages, email lists, and other digital platforms to “outperform traditional media” in the 2018 Ontario election.
According to the documents, the group claims to have achieved roughly 63.6 million Facebook impressions (a different metric than the one used in the above analysis) and 2.2 million Twitter impressions, made more than 2.5 million phone calls, and sent 1 million text messages during the 2018 election — all in a bid to help unseat the Liberal Party led by Kathleen Wynne.
While it’s impossible to measure how much those efforts contributed to the Liberals’ defeat, it’s clear that Ontario Proud believe it’s moving the needle.
Now founder Jeff Ballingall is taking his operation national in an attempt to bring down the federal Liberals.
“Our goal is to unseat Justin Trudeau; that’s our primary goal,” Ballingall said in a May interview.
“[But] it’s not about getting one party elected or another. It’s about moving the political spectrum and modernizing it. Right now we have a lot of issues in this country that we’re not talking about that I would like us to talk about … and I think too often traditional media, traditional players, aren’t holding politicians and corporate culture to account.”
As of today, the Proud network’s three main Facebook pages, including the more recently launched Canada Proud and Alberta Proud, have more than 626,000 fans.
The internal Ontario Proud documents, prepared in June 2018 and confirmed to be authentic by Ballingall, outlined the next steps for his operation, including working with “like-minded partners to launch and drive traffic to existing and new online properties.”
That effort is well underway. Ballingall now serves as the chief marketing officer for a website called the Post Millennial and is using the Proud network of pages to help its content reach a much wider audience. The site’s other top executives are Ali Taghva and Matthew Azrieli.
Taghva was elected president of the NDP riding association when he was still in high school, but his politics have since shifted to the right. Azrieli is the grandson of Montreal billionaire real estate developer David J. Azrieli.
The Post Millennial’s main Facebook page has more than 27,000 fans, but its reach on Facebook is being supercharged by the Proud network and another tight group of pages that consistently share its content. This network is a significant advantage for players on the right.
One key page is Elect Conservatives, which has more than 79,000 fans. It’s run by Yaakov Pollak, a Post Millennial photographer and writer and Conservative Party member who ran a party Facebook page for a Montreal riding, or electoral district, and campaigned for a local candidate. The Post Millennial’s content is also regularly shared by the Patriotic Dad page, which has 40,000 fans. Rob Boutilier, the man behind Patriotic Dad, said he has worked with the Post Millennial from “time to time,” but shares its content only when he thinks his own fans would be interested.
As it turns out, that’s quite often. The week the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke — a news event covered extensively across the country — Patriotic Dad and Elect Conservatives each shared 47 of the 65 total news articles published by the Post Millennial, according to data from CrowdTangle.
On the left, North99 is the most Facebook-savvy player, mixing memes and videos with calls to action in a mirror image of Ontario Proud’s tactics. Its Facebook page currently has just over 94,000 fans. While that’s fewer than the roughly 141,000 for PressProgress, a Broadbent Institute–backed progressive media operation, North99 has consistently generated more engagement on Facebook than the larger left-leaning page since last summer, according to data from CrowdTangle.
North99 trails Ontario Proud and almost all national media for total engagement over the past 18 months, but it still manages to generate impressive engagement per post, at times approaching the same amount of weekly engagement as Ontario Proud.
Scollon said North99 started with $500 from himself and his cofounder, Geoff Sharpe, and is a 100% crowdfunded nonprofit with more than 7,500 donors and no single donation above $1,000. Scollon and Sharpe both worked in Wynne’s Ontario Liberal government and for private political communications firms before striking out on their own. He said they started North99 to counter the right-wing voices that were dominating the online conversation.
Scollon said he believes that advocating for political policies has always been part of healthy democracies.
“There’s always been political advocacy and political communication,” he said. “We’re no different than any other organization or group of people who’ve wanted to advance a policy agenda in every election since we started having elections. … And the way you do that now has to include using the internet because it’s such a dominant source of information for people.”
Some players within the left-leaning side of Facebook’s media ecosystem don’t want to be grouped in with activist organizations like North99. Katrina Miller, the publisher of PressProgress, said her site is different from the partisan online media operations because PressProgress produces original reporting.
“We are very forthright about the fact that we are producing news from a progressive lens, but we also hold ourselves to journalistic standards,” she said.
But on Facebook, it’s difficult to make this distinction — a fact that Miller bemoans.
“With mainstream news, there was a certain level of security that journalistic practices are followed, but online it can be a little bit like the Wild West. We don’t know who’s following those practices and who isn’t,” she said. ●
BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.