So, given that there’s not only a byelection underway in Burnaby South, but Singh is actually on the ballot as his party’s candidate of record, the sponsored link could be categorized as “election advertising.”
If so, it would be covered by the laws governing third-party advertisers, which is the official term for any company, organization or individual that spends, or intends to spend more than $500 on paid advertising that, as Elections Canada puts it, “promotes or opposes a party or a candidate, or that takes a position on an issue associated with a party or candidate.”
Under the current laws, third party advertisers are required to register with Elections Canada, and are obliged to provide a full rundown of how much was spent on their campaign and where the ads appeared, as well as a list of donors. They’re also subject to strict limits on exactly how much can be spent, although there are no caps on donations. (The aforementioned overhaul of the election law also added new disclosure requirements aimed at stemming the use of funds originating from foreign sources.)
So, let’s circle back to the now-pulled link.
If it had simply been sent out as a tweet, or posted to Youtube, the banner likely would have been exempt from Elections Canada’s limits, as the election advertising laws only regulate advertising that costs money to either produce or transmit.
But, as the Tyee reports, the banner ad was placed through the online advertising network Taboola, which presumably charges money for the service, meaning it would very likely constitute election advertising.
If so, it would have to comply with all the above mentioned rules for registration and disclosure, and would also have to include a tag that clearly identifies the sponsor, as well as a statement of authorization.
But what about the actual content — namely, the link to a photo that purported to show Singh “showing off his new mansion”?
As it stands, Elections Canada has no power to sanction purveyors of provably bogus information unless it falls within a very narrow category added to the law in the most recent overhaul, which reads as follows:
91 (1) No person or entity shall, with the intention of affecting the results of an election, make or publish, during the election period,
(a) a false statement that a candidate, a prospective candidate, the leader of a political party or a public figure associated with a political party has committed an offence under an Act of Parliament or a regulation made under such an Act — or under an Act of the legislature of a province or a regulation made under such an Act — or has been charged with or is under investigation for such an offence; or
(b) a false statement about the citizenship, place of birth, education, professional qualifications or membership in a group or association of a candidate, a prospective candidate, the leader of a political party or a public figure associated with a political party.
That section replaces the original text, which was arguably a bit broader in scope, as it covered any false statement made “in relation to the personal character or conduct of a candidate or prospective candidate,” as well as the withdrawal of a candidate.
So, to circle back to the titular question, the answer is: Not much, other than potentially forcing the sponsor to register as a third-party advertiser, which would at least require them to identify themselves and eventually provide a list of who’s paying for the campaign. And even that wouldn’t come into play if such fake news was promoted via free social media platforms.