Elections Alberta is investigating two Twitter posts in which they say users impersonated the agency to damage its credibility on civic election day.
Acting deputy returning officer Pamela Renwick says Elections Alberta started investigating after a review of more than 3,000 tweets from last decade turned up two images that appeared to be digitally altered.
One appeared as a fake page from its website, and the other impersonated Election Alberta's twitter account. They were shared on Twitter on Oct. 18 — the date Albertans voted in civic elections, chose senate candidates and voted on two provincial referendum questions.
Steve Kaye, director of compliance and investigations for the agency, told a legislative committee last week the posts came to light while Elections Alberta was investigating an employee's unprofessional tweets on Oct. 18.
"Two fraudulent posts designed to disseminate deceptive information and further discredit our office were also discovered," he said. "We've already reached out to Twitter Canada through their law enforcement portal and will be raising this issue with our national deceptive online practices subcommittee."
Renwick said the agency won't comment further on the investigation.
The chief electoral officer has the power to investigate any suspected breaches of seven pieces of provincial legislation governing elections and financing.
A search of images shared Oct. 18 on Twitter reveals a picture of what appears to be a doctored tweet from Elections Alberta's account. It appears as if the agency has tweeted, "The democracy is ending. Accept it."
It appears to be a satirical take on a June tweet from Premier Jason Kenney's former issues manager Matt Wolf, in which he said, "The pandemic is ending. Accept it." It's unclear who first tweeted the meme.
Also circulating on Twitter that day was a picture that looks like a screenshot of Elections Alberta's website providing the public information about the equalization referendum question.
The meme pokes fun at stereotypes of people who might vote yes or no on the question. It's unclear who created it. Both pictures bear Elections Alberta's logo.
Renwick would not say whether either of the images are under investigation, but she said the agency didn't create them.
The memes came in the wake of public concern about Elections Alberta's Twitter activity on election day, for which the chief electoral officer has apologized.
Members of the public and academics also raised questions about whether the information Elections Alberta published about the equalization referendum question was accurate and impartial.
The line between satire and impersonation
University of Calgary political science Prof. Lisa Young says any impersonation is a huge concern for agencies tasked with running fair elections, even if it's an attempt at humour.
"There's a real worry I think, among election administrators about the idea of somebody coming in and hacking their website or their Twitter account or other social media accounts on or near election day and spreading misinformation and potentially throwing the credibility of the outcome of the election into question," she said.
Election laws haven't all kept up with the speed at which people can spread misinformation on social media, she said.
The Canada Elections Act, which governs federal elections, says it's an offence to impersonate the chief electoral officer or anyone acting on their behalf. Spreading false information is also disallowed, particularly if it uses Elections Canada's name or logo. Satire is excluded.
Alberta's Election Act disallows only the impersonation of a poll worker, enumerator, candidate or campaign worker.
Young said a more sophisticated actor could imitate Elections Alberta to spread false information about polling stations or the electoral process to interfere with a fair and free vote.
Cara Zwibel, a lawyer and director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says it would make sense for Elections Alberta to review alleged impersonations to improve how they combat misinformation.
But attempting to prosecute people for criticizing them would be a problem, she said.
"There is for sure a chilling effect this can have and when it comes to debates and discussions around elections and our democracy, [and] that's a place where we really don't want that chill," she said.
According to Twitter's website, improperly using a trademark to mislead or confuse people is a violation of their user policy and can result in the suspension of an account.
The company's policies also state users can't use their accounts to interfere with elections, even if the interference is an attempt at humour.