By Yasir Naqvi | Published by The Vancouver Sun
Yasir Naqvi: Citizen Action Needed to Clean up Pollution of our Public Square
It may be too little, too late to stop disinformation online, so it is up to us to strengthen ourselves against manipulators.
We are being divided. We see stories daily about people being pitted against each other. Though some are true, we know that many are false, designed to manipulate us. Each online argument, conspiracy theory and screed is replicated through social media, bots and online platforms masquerading as news sites.
According to the 2019 Leger National Reputation Study of Canadian corporate entities, two of the biggest declines in reputation were Facebook and Twitter. These declines are attributed to several factors, including a drop in trust, transparency and perceived social responsibility. This drop suggests people understand that disinformation is a problem but don’t expect the solution to come solely from technology companies.
The easy narrative tells us that to fix online disinformation we must rely on tech solutions. Simply policing social media is inadequate, as platforms are powerful connectors and people crave connection.
The real issue is the malicious actors who have hijacked news feeds. Attempts to manipulate are inevitable and getting more sophisticated, as we see false stories morph into doctored audio, video or worse. It may be too late to reverse this pollution of our public square.
Disempowerment from disinformation has resulted in citizens losing not only the space to exercise their agency, but also critical knowledge. The right to participate in civic life, at the core of the Canadian experience, is under threat as divisions take hold.
As part of her recent LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture at 6 Degrees Toronto, organized by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, tech entrepreneur Sue Gardner spoke about the escalating danger that digital disinformation poses to democracy: “What we are risking is being ruled by big tech. We need to invest in our democratic structures. If we don’t do that, we risk going down a much darker route.”
Simply put, we need to stop the erosion of our citizenship.
Investing in our citizenry is key. Tech companies have made only token efforts to stop disinformation. Governments have asked for help to solve the problem. Media are threatened by a precarious business model. The public is unsure where to turn.
It may be too little, too late to stop disinformation online, so it is up to us to strengthen ourselves against manipulators. We must empower people to reclaim the idea of active citizenship. We believe that a sense of belonging comes from an understanding of each other, rooted in developing awareness and making connections.
Investing in tools to strengthen civic literacy and recognizing disinformation is key to preventing malicious actors from using online platforms to exploit people. The solutions are not complex. We need projects like the 6 Degrees Dictionary, which examines the language of citizenship. We need inclusive conversations, where people share ideas and solutions. We need to encourage people from different perspectives to learn about each other through cultural spaces such as libraries, museums, national parks and community events.
Equipping people with the knowledge and tools to embrace inclusion, while encouraging them to come together allows everyone to more easily recognize and reject inflammatory language and online manipulation, contributing to a global movement to strengthen active citizenship.
The call to action for the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and other organizations is to do this work. For Canadians, it is to embrace difference and take an engaged role in our society and to understand that a culture of belonging is the best defence against division.
Yasir Naqvi is CEO of the Toronto-based Institute for Canadian Citizenship. He was a Liberal MPP representing Ottawa Centre from 2007 to 2018 and served as Ontario’s attorney general. This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2019 Community Summit: Confronting the Disinformation Age, running April 10 to 18.
This article was originally published by The Vancouver Sun on April 10, 2019.