October 21, 2019

Facts or Fiction? Misinformation, Media and the Canadian Election: a summary

Claire Atkin, director of First Mountain, a B2B SaaS marketing agency

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.

Last summer, a flyer circulated in Canadian WeChat. The flyer said that Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party were planning to legalize all hard drugs. This wasn't true, but the rumour quickly grew, piggy-backing on a prior frenzy about cannabis legalization. 

This is the story that kicked off SFU Public Square and SFU Centre for Dialogue's event "Facts or Fiction? Misinformation, Media and the Canadian Election," hosted at the Vancouver Public Library last Thursday morning. The panel was moderated by Dr. Jennifer Wolowic, Project Manager of the Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. The panelists included:

  • Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi, the Director of the Disinformation Project, and Assistant Professor of Social Media, News, and Public Communication at the SFU School of Communication;
  • Stephanie Wood, a citizen of the Skwxwú7mesh Nation and contributor to the First Nations Forward series at the National Observer;
  • Jagdeesh Mann, a Jack Webster Award winning journalist and founder of Sunflower Media;
  • Francesca Fionda, and an investigative journalist covering data breaches, privacy and misinformation for the podcast Attention Control; and
  • Lindsay Sample, editorial director at The Discourse.

The following is a summary of the key points that were discussed.

The challenges of reporting news in 2019

Mainstream media has been gutted by the internet-powered advertisement industry. After massive layoffs and newsroom closures, it’s no surprise that the journalists left are struggling to identify which rumours are based on fact. Media are deferring to spokespeople to represent the opinions of entire communities. Editors are inviting more and more political pundits to provide thinly veiled op-eds to fill the pages. Journalists are doing what they can to hold together ‘News’ as a democratic institution. 

Over 290 outlets have closed since 2008. Most journalists now, she said, are sitting at their desks and dealing with press releases. "They're not out in the community listening to people. The news ecosystem doesn't exist to support that." With more news to cover and fewer people to cover it, everyone is squeezed. 

There are consequences to this. ”There's a lot of stuff,” said Jagdeesh Mann, “in this diminishing media landscape that is being missed.” The media outlets that remain are highly conglomerated. Across small towns in Canada, you see the same news no matter what your province. “You're not seeing local news that is integral to a democracy."

Mainstream news is reporting rumours 

And the news we do see is at risk of compromise. Stephanie Wood of the National Observer said that domestic disinformation - information that is created to intentionally mislead readers - is not just on social media: "Little things that seem less important are slipping into the mainstream [media]." Reputable news outlets are reporting stories with misinformation.

Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi supported Wood's claim. "Canadians have been exposed to misinformation and disinformation through mainstream media," he said. Politicians often lie, but it is the responsibility of media to fact check.

Media is relying on spokespeople

It is widely acknowledged in Canada that the First Nations news coverage this election has been lacking. Stephanie Wood explained this: "Media loves to have a spokesperson because that makes it easy for them." When they can have one person who represents a wider group of minorities, they don't have to do the work of gaining perspective.

The most recent candidate debate, she said, had an example of how misinformation can spread straight from someone's mouth. Andrew Scheer convoluted what "consent" means in regards to the rights of Indigenous people. He said it gives Indigenous people the right to “hold projects hostage." That's wrong.

But misinformation and disinformation is nothing new for First Nations people. Currently, we see it as a threat to western democracy, but disinformation has been weaponized against indigenous people for centuries. It has perpetuated stereotypes and suppressed prior government systems. "These systems," Wood said, "existed long before western democracy." 

Editors are inviting problematically biased op-eds

An increasing portion of newspaper space is given to op eds. To do this, Jennifer Wolowic explained, newspapers bring in political analysts. These people usually have a political background, and are more often than not towing a party line in some way. Those stories are cheaper and faster to produce. "We have a system," she said, "that is incentivising opinion over fact."

This puts mainstream media in crisis, says Dr. Al-Rawi. News is a cultural commodity, and fake news sells well. But if mainstream media continues in this way, he says, it will lose credibility. 

Part of this problem is that we've always thought media should cover “both sides” of every story. But Francesca Fionda noted that misinformation can spread when that balance is not right. When one side has to lie to counter a point, there’s no such thing as both sides.

To counteract lies during the election, Lindsay Sample said, there were tons of journalists live fact-checking the debate, “but the format it was delivered in was terrible. We need to rethink the format,” she said, “where you have someone fact checking everything that was said. Either you educate the public about what was said; or you give each leader a ranking about what was said. Politicians should not be able to say whatever they want.”

Despite Canadian media’s concern over covering "both sides," they  consistently omit voices that matter. Jagdeesh Mann mentioned, for instance, the moment when Justin Trudeau's blackface emerged onto the world scene. The question journalists were asking him was "how is this going to affect your electability?" They didn't ask more important questions like "when did you realize that blackface is historically racist, and involved in the dehumanization of black people?" Even when we have the stories that we want to talk about, he said, "there's a lack of representation in the room to steer the conversation deeper."

What can be done?

Panelists and audience members discussed a variety of tactics to overcome misinformation in mainstream media. Here are some of the highlights.

Acknowledge that ad tech has gutted journalism

Newsrooms weren't the only status quo model being rethought onstage. Some panelists questioned the entire model of journalism. When Facebook and Google capture 75% of ad revenue in Canada, and Postmedia have only 1%, Jagdeesh Mann says, "there's structurally something broken in our media world."

The advertising model promotes an abundance of opinion. It congests our world with unreliable sources, and lacks ethical information gatekeepers. So, advertisement itself has come under attack. Lindsay Sample says her team at Discourse are rethinking the model for journalism (readers pay for the news directly), but that there's more that can be done. Recently, for instance, governments have allowed journalism sources to be non-profits.

How to respond to fake news outlets

A rumour has spread in recent weeks saying that Justin Trudeau had to leave his teaching position at West Point Grey academy because of a sex scandal. The Buffalo Chronicle, an American website, published a story about it that said it was "rumoured" he was facing charges.

Disseminators of fake news in Canada is not just on the far right, but also the far left. Fake news in Canada has attacked the Syrian White Helmets, and accused Stephen Harper of being a CIA agent.

Social media fans the flames of these rumours, spreading misinformation through powerful networks. One false statistic –that 70% of abuse of indigenous women is by indigenous men – made its way into mainstream citations and even the RCMP in recent years. The National Observer debunked it this last June.

Should fake news be illegal?

At what point does fake news become illegal? Most of what we say - even lies - is protected by free speech. But, some fake news falls under libel or hate speech. The challenge is in deciding when a statement is hate speech and when it is not - and without journalistic and editorial standards, the people who run social media platforms are the de facto deciders.

Germany is the one country in the world that requires social platforms to monitor and report fake news. The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or Network Enforcement Act, is meant to combat fake news and agitation on social networks. In Canada, even Dr. Al-Rawi, a researcher specializing in disinformation online, doesn't know if there are foreign actors spreading disinformation ahead of our election. We don't know, he said, because Facebook and Twitter have not released the data. If fake news should be illegal, federal policy should ensure tech platforms report illegal posts.

What you can do now

Dr. Jennifer Wolowic started the morning by stating her goal for the panel: to encourage Canadians across communities to identify as democratic champions. When misinformation is challenging our capacities to make decisions, how do we as citizens resist the rising tide of division and autocracy? Some suggestions from both the panelists and the audience included, by, in my opinion, order of importance:

  1. Ask representatives about their support of Canada's Digital Charter, 10 principles including strong enforcement and real accountability for tech's effects on Canadian society. So far, all political parties have started working on a digital platform, but so far no party has published a proposal.

  2. Pay attention to news reported by journalists. Journalists care. They double check wording for accuracy, fact check story details, and sit on panels to discuss how to do their job better. They are the most reliable source of information we have.

  3. Be kind in your debates with friends and family. Lindsay Sample said that her favourite question to ask is "help me understand where you're coming from." We come from different perspectives, she said. Be kind.

  4. We need to hold mainstream media accountable for their reporting. The Guardian in the UK is increasingly funded by people from all around the world. That is how it maintains objectivity. The New York Times has a public editor to accept feedback from the public. This role allows for a two-way conversation between the publication and readers.

  5. Notice the burden of responsibility. Typically in online spaces, women and people of colour tend to be the educators. If we leave out those comments, people are going to be misinformed.

  6. Be careful not to weaponize words like "bot" or "politician." Accusing social media users of being bots when they are not can disenfranchise them. Saying "politicians are liars" is a problematic sweeping statement that causes more harm than good.

  7. You have some agency over what you click and read on social media. Choose not to click.

Related Links

I am looking to connect with people who share my concerns regarding tech’s runaway autocracy. If this concerns you, please message me. Other interesting organisations are listed here. 

National Observer's Election Integrity Reporting Project

Francesca Fionda's Attention Control Podcast

SFU's Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative

McGill's Digital Democracy Project

The Logic Podcast

Tides Canada's Digital Justice Lab

The Open Privacy Research Society

Canadian International Council's OpenCanada

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