Political advocacy group North99 uses misleading petitions to gather voter data
Hundreds of Facebook ads used to promote petitions that weren’t delivered to anyone
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.”
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