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Private Messaging Public Harms: Disinformation and Online Harms on Private Messaging Platforms in Canada

June 2020

Private Messages, Public Harms


Sam Andrey

Sam Andrey


Alexander Rand

Mohammed (Joe) Masoodi

Mohammed (Joe) Masoodi


Stephanie Tran


  • Karim Bardeesy
  • Sumit Bhatia
  • Jahanmeer Bhatt
  • Zaynab Choudhry
  • Charles Finlay
  • Braelyn Guppy
  • Yuan Stevens



Executive Summary

More than eight in ten people in Canada use online private messaging platforms, such as Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat; and over half are receiving messages about the news or current events at least weekly. This growing vector for news is coming under increased scrutiny, as evidence from jurisdictions around the world reveal private messaging apps’ role in spreading disinformation and a broad range of already-illegal materials, including hate speech, inciting violence, cybercrime, sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation materials.

The spread of disinformation and other online harms poses risks for social cohesion, public safety and democracy; and, as a result, has raised calls for technical and regulatory changes. At the same time, concerns have also been raised regarding over-censorship of content and that any such changes may negatively impact freedoms and rights, particularly the right to free expression. Adding to the complexity, cybersecurity and privacy experts fear that police and security agencies may use online harms to justify the weakening of encryption technologies used by many messaging apps, allowing them access to message content, and thus posing significant implications for privacy rights and civil liberties.

To date, Canadian regulatory proposals have focused largely on social media content that remains publicly accessible. The purpose of this report is to explore the role of private messaging in information ecosystems in Canada, including Canadians’ use of messaging apps; their exposure to disinformation and other online harms; and potential policy and technical approaches to mitigate potential harms.