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Federal Tories using hybrid automated system to raise election funds

Montreal-based musician Brandon Vasko says a recent call from the Conservative party was a little surreal.
Montreal-based musician Brandon Vasko says a recent call from the Conservative party was a little surreal. - 123RF Stock Photo

Eventually, Brandon Vasko asked the caller if she was a bot. 

“There was silence and she said ‘ha ha, I don’t sound that fake, do I? I’m just reading off a set of scripted responses.’” 

When Brandon Vasko got a fundraising call from the Conservative Party of Canada on Thursday night, he thought it was a little strange as he doesn’t recall ever registering as a supporter. 

It only got weirder from there. 

Vasko, a Montreal-based musician and quality assurance tester for video games, said everything seemed fairly normal at first.  

The caller identified herself as Julie from the Conservative party and said it was nice to get a real person on the line as she had been talking to voicemails all evening.  

Vasko then said “Julie” asked if he had a few minutes to chat, and began talking about the SNC-Lavalin scandal. 

“It sounded like she was reading off a newspaper, it was almost like a word for word recount of what’s been going on in the news,’” Vasko said. 

As the call went on, Vasko, who had previously worked on sound recording and editing for several film projects, started noticing something very unnatural about the conversation such as the complete lack of background noise and odd pauses in her speech, such as before and after she said her name, that sounded like sound clips being spliced together. 

“She was pronouncing everything exactly proper with no breathing pauses, she didn’t accidentally slur two words together like some people do in conversation especially if they’ve been saying the script over and over again,” he said. 

Eventually, Vasko asked the caller if she was a bot. 

“There was silence and she said ‘ha ha, I don’t sound that fake, do I? I’m just reading off a set of scripted responses,’” Vasko said. 

By then, Vasko was fairly certain he was conversing with a recording, so he began asking random questions to throw the call off script. Eventually, the caller wished him good night and disconnected. 

“There are responses for almost every scenario you can dream of.”

            -Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party of Canada  

Vasko said the call was a little surreal, and reminded him of the virtual assistant technology that was unveiled last year by Google called Google Duplex — you may have seen the somewhat unnerving viral video of the assistant seamlessly making hair appointments and restaurant reservations. 

But according to Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party of Canada, it’s nothing quite that sophisticated. 

Hann told SaltWire the party has been using a hybrid automated system for its fundraising calls over the last few years, it’s essentially a live agent on the line listening to the caller but choosing pre-programmed, recorded responses off a computerized soundboard rather than actually engaging in the conversation themselves. He said the automated voice can be male or female, depending on the agent. 

“It allows us to get through our list quicker but it also ensures quality control, so you don’t have an agent going off script or saying something that they shouldn’t say,” Hann said. 

The system has been working out quite well for the party, Hann said, and the numbers seem to back him up: just last month the Conservatives broke a record for the best ever first quarter fundraising by a federal party, raising over $8 million in the first three months of 2019 — more than double what was raised by the Liberals. 

“We’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, so we’ve had some chances to really customize it a little better for our needs,” he said. 

Vasko said without his background in audio editing, he’s not sure he would have been any wiser that he wasn’t talking to a real person. Hann also admitted the recordings are pretty convincing. 

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “There are responses for almost every scenario you can dream of.” 

Hann said the semi-automated calls are being sent out regularly to supporters across the country, but only for donor identification. However, he said the party may consider expanding its use of the system to voter identification in the future. 

agunn@herald.ca 

@notandrea 

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