SFU Public Square Community Summit: Confronting the Disinformation Age

April 07, 2019

Op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

In an age of disinformation, it is not possible to point the finger of blame in any one direction. In advertising, on websites, through social media, we are bombarded with everything from self-serving distortions to outright falsehoods.

Anti-vaccination myths compete for attention with misinformation from climate-change deniers. At the same time, political discourse is becoming increasingly fractured as partisans seek to drive public opinion based on fabricated facts and false narratives. Their goal is not to illuminate complex public issues but to sow divisions, confirm biases and harden positions.

These developments pose a threat that should concern us all. As people despair at sourcing accurate information — as they lose trust in what they see and hear — democracy itself is endangered. Poorly informed voters lash out or don’t vote at all, undermining faith in public institutions.

In the face of this onslaught, what are citizens to do? Solutions do not come easily but, as a starting point, we must all work harder to seek out reliable information upon which to base our opinions. While “truth” may be a contested concept, we nonetheless bear responsibility to found our judgments upon evidence that is factual and dependable.

In addition, we must establish — and frequent — public forums where our ideas can be shared and tested. If the internet overwhelms us with information, and social media distorts it to reinforce our preconceptions, we need to summon the resolve to fact-check our knowledge and test our opinions with those who, rightly or wrongly, may disagree.

As Canada’s most community-engaged research university, Simon Fraser University is committed to assisting in this two-part response.

University-based experts remain among the most trusted members of our society, a circumstance re-confirmed by this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. SFU makes a point of encouraging our faculty and our increasingly well-informed students to share their knowledge and expertise with our communities. SFU researchers stand ready to answer the pressing questions of the day on all manner of issues, from health and the economy to hard sciences and the environment.

More specifically, we have made it our mission to serve as a public square for dialogue. Leveraging physical spaces such as the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, together with the convening power of our experts and facilitators, SFU is committed to providing a safe and supportive venue for informed discussion and deliberation on important issues of the day.

The most prominent example of this function is the SFU Public Square Community Summit, an annual, week-long event that generally engages more than 3,000 people in person and, last year, touched millions of Canadians through virtual events, webcasting, social media and this opinion-page series.

The keynote event in this year’s summit, Confronting the Disinformation Age, occurs April 16 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. It features David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic; Sue Gardner, executive director of The Markupand Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower — in conversation with the CBC’s Ian Hanomansing.

The week also includes a host of other events, including sessions on SFU research, a digital citizenship day, including 150 high school students and discussions on topics including: Is the Internet Destroying Democracy?; Competing Visions of Climate Populism; and, The Philosophy of Fake News.

Seven years ago, SFU directed itself to the need for public engagement — to do everything possible to connect our operations more closely with communities. The exercise has proved to be a huge success, benefitting our students and researchers while enriching the communities we serve.

This same strategy — engagement — feels like the single best hope for confronting disinformation. An open, well-informed conversation will benefit all. Please join us for the 2019 SFU Public Square Community Summit.