At the end of our workshop in Winnipeg, several of the participants posed with our pitches.

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May 15, 2019

How is misinformation fueling hate — and can journalists do something about it?

Our collaborative workshop series aimed to reimagine what Canada’s election coverage could look like.

It’s not often in journalism, a job predicated on responding to the news of the day, that you get a moment to pause and think about the big picture. It’s even less often, in part due to the competitive nature of our industry, that you get to do that in a room with other journalists and community members who care about the issues you’re covering.

But this spring, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. The Discourse — with support from SFU Public SquareInspirit Foundation and Pop-Up Newsroom — hosted two workshops, to try to answer this question: Can collaborative journalism help respond to polarization and hate leading up to the Canadian federal election?

The short answer is yes, we think it can. Out of these workshops emerged six interesting project pitches that could be developed and executed by journalists across the country. We talked about improving commenting by genuinely engaging with people instead of simply sharing stories and waiting to see what happens. We talked about how to add more historical context to stories, how to listen to people outside of major urban centres, and what resources we would need to collaborate.

There are a lot of specific ideas to take away from the workshops, but for those in the room, it was more than that. “What I take away is that I got to meet and connect with you all in person,” said one participant. “Collaboration is not as daunting,” said another. “To be part of these conversations is to take a bite-sized approach to a very large problem,” said my co-facilitator, Sadiya Ansari.

At The Discourse, we’re now figuring out our next steps for this work. We’re open to collaborating and our hope is that everyone who participated, and also those who couldn’t be there in person, can continue to move the misinformation conversation forward. Below, you’ll find the details of what we did and the results of our rapid pitching sessions.

Step one, define the problem

Our first workshop was in Vancouver at SFU Public Square’s Community Summit. A group of 29 journalists, students, industry professionals and community members came together for three hours to collaborate. We started by defining misinformation vs. disinformation — because though they’re often used interchangeably, they’re not the same.

Misinformation is false or inaccurate information.
Disinformation is a type of misinformation spread deliberately to deceive.

Once we got that out of the way, we split into five groups and brainstormed why misinformation can fuel hate.

These are some of the top themes that came up:

  1. Anonymity encourages hate.
  2. Information overload distracts from real issues and problems.
  3. There’s a deteriorating trust in institutions.
  4. Misinformation targets values and emotions, not facts.
  5. People don’t seek diverse information experiences.
  6. Niche groups are being targeted around harmful ideas.
  7. Tech business models and algorithms reinforce biases.
Participants during our SFU workshop voted on which topic they wanted to develop pitches for.

Step two, what can be done about it

It’s easy to create a long list of problems, but what could a collaborative journalism project focus on to help solve this? We narrowed it down to four topics (1,2,5,7 above), assigned each group one topic and gave people 30 minutes to develop concrete pitches for how journalists could contribute. Fast, I know, but it’s amazing what a group of people can accomplish in only a short time.

These are the ideas that came out:

Group 1
Problem: Niche groups are being targeted around harmful ideas
Solution: Mindful Media Moment

A campaign that shares a bite-sized mindful media moment each day via different platforms to educate people on how to consume news with a critical mind. This project could involve partnering with organizations that work with targeted groups to share information.

Group 2 
Problem: Information overload
Solution: You might not have known…

A public engagement journalism project that helps people get out of their echo chambers. Step one, create a way for people to identify what information is being targeted to them during the election by creating profiles that people can match with. Step two is to provide them with reporting that they might not have seen. Make space for people to ask questions and get answers based on what they learn and what they want to know more about.

Group 3
Problem: Misinformation targets values and emotions, not facts
Solution: Checklist for responsible journalism

Stricter gatekeeping is the theme that guided this group’s conversation. Media outlets of all kinds are under a lot of pressure to deal with very complex issues. They asked, what are the practices that can be incorporated to deal with complex issues in a way that doesn’t simplify them and reduce them into a dichotomy? A checklist could be part of the answer. When newsroom vet stories, there should be more attempts (or concerted attempts) to cover different points of view before publishing or broadcasting. Media could be more transparent about their funding. There could be more attention given to different guests to broaden the number of people who speak on an issue — we need to make it more than simply left and right. Technology could help with this because tools like Hearken and Slido could support engagement.

Group 4
Problem: Anonymity encourages hate
Solution: Inviting conversation

This project is focused on addressing the issue of hate, lack of accountability and poor online behaviour. They propose an investigation to understand the people who are making hateful comments online that would involve engaging in thoughtful conversation with those individuals. It would be a collaboration across media organizations over a week or month long to explore why people are commenting the way they are and trying to figure out how to design a commenting system that nudges good behaviour.

We ended the workshop by asking participants what they’d take away. Here are a couple of things we heard:

“I’m taking away the value of collaborating and being inclusive in the group. We tumbled through ideas really easily, remembering that having diversity and diverse ideas can help move things in a way that you can’t come up with on your own.”

“This drove home the importance of collaboration, conversing, and coalescing around the issue. We must keep seeking solutions together.”

Building on what we learned: Workshop two

At the Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Winnipeg, we wanted to dig deeper into misinformation and hate. We anticipate that the election is going to be heated and divisive and we know Indigenous and Muslim communities are going to be disproportionately affected (for example, this article by CBC found that Twitter trolls stoked controversy specifically over pipelines and immigration in Canada).

So, we invited journalists and stakeholders who care about these issues to participate. Building off of the SFU workshop, we started by narrowing in on the top four issues that journalists could play a part in tackling: Niche groups are being targeted around harmful ideas, information overload distracts from the real issue and real problems, misinformation targets values and emotions, not facts and anonymity encourages hate.

After some discussion, everyone voted on which issue they wanted to explore more deeply. Two issues jumped out: information overload and misinformation targeting emotions. We spent the rest of the workshop digging into how collaborative journalism could be part of solving those problems. Here are the pitches that came out:

Group 1: 
Problem: Information overload

This is a problem because it can lead to election apathy, plays into political theatre and doesn’t matter to real people. People become fed up with the overwhelming 24/hour news cycle and they disengage. Reporting is often about short-term memory and doesn’t put things into political context. At the end of the day, journalists can be exhausted and feel like they're not having an impact.

Solution: What the fact

Explainer content that helps Canadians see through political theatre, focusing specifically on national and local issues that matter to marginalized communities. This is for Canadians who are fed up with the news cycle and disengaged. We imagine a research and digital hub that would support outlets across the country to create explainer content. We’d develop a template that is easy and can be adapted to different contexts and then support the creation of videos and infographics that can be shared widely. We also imagine a way for the public to ask us “what the fact” is going on here so that we can create responsive content.

Group 2: 
Problem: Misinformation targets values and emotions, not facts
Solution: Small town echo chambers (a working title)

Small towns are particularly vulnerable to polarizing rhetoric as local media have disappeared. This project aims to partially fill the reporting gap left in small communities by focusing on information-gathering on key polarizing election issues.

Digital outlets across the country would collaborate to support information-gathering from journalists and residents in small communities on a well-defined list of election issues. The reporting would be vetted and fed into a central hub for local and national media outlets to use.

Again, we ended the workshop by asking participants what they’d take away. Here are a few of the things that we heard:

“I’ve been thinking about misinformation in terms of fact-checking vs contextualizing true information. Let’s take a step back and think yes this is happening but what are things that people need in place of misinformation.”

“We don’t need to get better we need to think outside the box and change.”

“ I feel really energized today by the commitment that many of you have been showing. I think for somebody like me who is not a journalist and has no background it’s so inspiring to go back and know there are people pushing the conversation forward.”

At The Discourse, we feel energized too. We’re really interested in digging deeper into information overload and the issue of sharing emotion over fact. For us, they’re two sides of the same coin. We’re going to figure out our next steps for us in the coming weeks. If you’re interested in collaborating with us, email me, Lindsay Sample, at

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