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Asmita Lawrence (left) with volunteer at the Confronting Disinformation Age keynote event.
May 15, 2019
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Confronting the Disinformation Age

Asmita Lawrence, SFU Community Ambassador

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

The SFU Public Square organized their annual community summit between April 10-18, 2019. This year’s theme was ‘Confronting the Disinformation Age’.

There is a growing concern around the world about the manipulation of information and the use of artificial intelligence to customize messaging and communications to individuals. Leading thinkers and activists were invited by the SFU Public Square for a talk on this topic at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on April 16th in the evening. The speakers for this signature event were David Frum political commentator, Sue Gardener ex Director of the Wikimedia Foundation and Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, in a conversation moderated by the CBC’s Ian Hanomansing.

From the start the discussion was highly informative and engaging. David Frum gave examples of the pervasive fake news in the news cycle. “For instance a story broke that the Pope of Vatican endorsed the winning candidate during the 2016 American election. This was a powerfully persuasive news piece for some potential voters but it was completely untrue “explained Frum.  

Ian Hanomansing asked how disinformation is affecting Canadians. The panelists suggested that Canadian politics is currently not as polarised as in some other countries. However disinformation campaigns may seek to divide and disengage the public for example through ethnic language media. Sue Gardener and David Frum reminded that such news is often planted on the screens of individuals in the community that are most likely to believe  it and take disruptive action to threaten our social fabric as a result of the fake news stories. For instance during recent negotiations regarding the extradition of the CFO of the Chinese company Huawei Technologies there have been fake news stories targeting the ethnic Chinese community in Canada. These and other examples demonstrate the ease with which inexpensive but potent fake news campaigns can effectively sway public opinion said the panelists.  Such targeted messaging can therefore incite disharmony and destruction of the public trust in public institutions, the media and the government itself.

Other examples given during their conversation included the ‘anti vaccination myths’ spreading among local communities. This can also contribute to public health issues such as the measles outbreak in Vancouver. The speakers considered another powerful example of fabricated facts spread by the climate change deniers and their efforts to thwart united action to mitigate the effects of climate change. Christopher Wylie further gave the example of the NAFTA trade negotiations during which Canadians were vulnerable to some propaganda pertaining to particular dairy products or other agricultural products.

Touching on his experiences at Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie outlined the potentially dangerous outcomes of modern technological advances that could promote ‘surveillance capitalism’. Modern technology has enabled fast communication. But as people ring or text or email their friends and colleagues, the content of their communication is deciphered by algorithms that use artificial intelligence and then seemingly relevant news stories populate their screen space. Unfortunately mis-use of this technology can mislead readers by taking advantage of their confirmation bias perhaps i.e. people’s tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.

David Frum warned against viewing this whole topic through the lens of ‘where technology went wrong’. He reiterated that this is a demand problem not a supply problem. He was referring to the fact that people continue to demonstrate an appetite for disinformation even when it sows division among communities based on gender, ethnicity, race, age or other such factors due to personal discontent. He reminded that in order to resist such campaigns people have to be supported and a robust middle class would be more likely withstand and question such disinformation campaigns.

Event organizer Kady Wong explained the context and history of the annual summits emphasizing the collective impact of the community Summit. She shared information about the ‘conversation circles’ that were planned after the Talk that evening. These were facilitated discussions planned as three breakout sessions that enabled attending audiences to give their views and engage with the topic actively. The event attracted a wide range of people with many different interests, professions and perspectives.

One of the visitors who chose to remain anonymous talked about the breach of privacy resulting from when information about individuals is recorded. “I am a librarian and therefore a custodian of information. Young people especially are not thinking about how long data is stored now a days and what information about them will still be in the public domain when they are much older”.

The event attracted audiences of all ages. Ted, a young man was keen to attend the Talk to learn more about tech trends and to get a perspective on how to handle the shifting interface with media. “Youth  are used to the ubiquitous data collection ., It is so ingrained in our daily lives. I continue to use Facebook everyday as my main source of communication. I don’t really think about it. It probably does not influence me” he opined. A couple of high school students were attending courtesy of the ‘Young Entrepreneur Leadership Lunch Bag’ Charity. They were attending to gain a better understanding of the impact of smart technologies. Their own business idea was to create a ‘smart food system’ where devices and appliances that are part of the food chain could record food usage and assist in preventing waste. The young girls Isabella and Taryn acknowledged that “there was an ongoing discussion about who can access the database regarding nutritional value in the food consumed by the users and the tradeoff had to be accurately outlined in our business plan”

Mike Larsen, President of the ‘BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’ was attending the event. He gave his views on the blurring lines between private communication, social networking and access of information from public sources. He acknowledged that the same technology which was perceived as intrusive by the older generation is now becoming an inevitable aspect of daily life. But he suggested that as citizens we must be vigilant against misuse and overreach. The Association; was formed in 1991 and advocated for the Freedom of Information Protection Act that was passed in BC.

Prior to the Talk there was an opportunity for attendees to attend a small exhibition in the foyer titled ‘The Glass Room’ which informed visitors of how technology is pervasive and sometimes invasive. When people use gadgets as devices such as a smart TV or a smart Vacuum Cleaner they are giving away information about individual lifestyle choices and tastes which can then be used to personalize the messaging and advertisements sent their way. Volunteers were assigned to assist attendees at the Exhibition.

Volunteers like Pat have been attending since over three years and mentioned that this year’s theme was particularly relevant. She echoed concerns about big brother watching which could lead to an Orwellian society. “It has been informative and it has got me thinking. I am likely to change some of my lifestyle as a result of what I learnt today “said another volunteer attending the event.

Read related stories from other Voices in the Square

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