SOCIAL MEDIA’S DISTURBING POWER

By the Star

How one man used his marketing skills to promote hatred, spread fake news and turn a profit

The Star and Buzzfeed News are investigating the ways 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 is the first report.

Like many people who’ve worked in Alberta’s oilsands, Craig Collins is concerned about the future of the industry and his own employment.

So to earn additional income, Collins developed a lucrative side-hustle building job ad websites and growing their associated Facebook presence. He’s earned more than $50,000 building and flipping job search websites over the past three years.

But as the employment dried up in the oilsands, so too did his ability to create online businesses built around advertising those jobs. Late last year Collins launched a new website, Yellowvestgroup. com and began promoting it on a Facebook page and group he created.

Sharing Islamophobic memes along with images of the socalled “yellow vest” anti-carbon tax protests in Canada, the page attracted more than 7,600 fans while the associated Facebook group had more than 2,700 members.

Collins kept his name off of the site and used fake profiles to manage the associated Facebook presence. But a Toronto Star/ Buzzfeed News investigation uncovered how he applied internet marketing skills to capitalize on the yellow vest movement’s social media presence.

He funnelled followers from two Facebook pages and a group to the related website that earns revenue from ads, as well as to an online store where they could buy t-shirts, mugs, and stickers with yellow vest slogans.

In his effort to promote what he considered “real news,” Collins also published a story on his website that inaccurately connected a moratorium on new work camps outside Fort Mcmurray to plans for a new mosque. The misleading story generated close to 15,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.

The threat of foreign entities using social media to meddle in elections has prompted Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould to create a committee to alert Canadians about potential interference in this October’s election.

But while attention has been focused on countries such as Russia, people like Collins demonstrate how simple it is for anyone to adopt a fake identity and use social media to sway public opinion — even if only to make a buck.

“Don’t make me look like I’m trying to scam the yellow vests. I was there (online) to help them get a better name,” Collins said in an interview Tuesday. “All I see is hard- working folks trying to make a change.”

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