Why Must we be Cautious?
Acclaimed Canadian American journalist Dahlia Lithwick remarked that “there is no rest stop on the misinformation highway.” Threatening our democratic foundations, unverified and misleading news continues to spread unrelentingly across the busy roadways of the global internet. For unknown reasons, foreign and domestic actors are spreading misinformation to promote policies, defeat candidates, sow seeds of division and destabilize the legitimacy of elections like the US presidential race.
Canada is not immune. Electoral interferers are trying to divide Canadians by exacerbating and confounding the debates around controversial subjects like immigration and pipelines. The battle for control of the information age is well and truly on. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by false news, we may find ourselves acting under the influence of a foreign government or party looking to undermine our political processes.
How do we Identify Misinformation?
As methods to influence people become more sophisticated, we must not assume false information can be easily identified. Information may not be blatant but can slightly nudge us towards a certain disposition. The emergence of data tracking systems has led to exploitative and nefarious tactics on behalf of governments and parties looking to make money and divide Canadians. Provocative and untrue links enrage individuals so that they will get engaged and bring in ad revenue. We need to look for signs that the information we have come across is designed to influence our political positions. One sign could be that you experience anger or elation. This could be an indication that the post has been tailored to trigger your emotions so that you will be motivated to act in a certain way. Also, be careful when looking at supposed quotations made by political candidates. Their words may be true, but they may have been taken out of context to fit a narrative.
Who is Responsible for Combatting the Spread of Misinformation?
While it is tempting to assign the exclusive role of fighting disinformation to governments and media sharing companies, the responsibility falls on everyone. Combatting information in the digital age necessitates that all citizens do their part to verify information. Should it be that way? No. Unfortunately, the hesitancy of corporate giants like Facebook to impose more stringent control on content means we should not expect information to be vetted. Instead, we must take precautions when confronted with political messages by not taking their message at face value. We must look to verify information by donning our investigative journalisthats.
What can we do to Protect our Democracy?
We must become watchful media consumers. Some good practices that we can adopt include reading articles before sharing them, taking time to look up the websites, publications, or individuals from whom information originates, engaging with a variety of perspectives and news channels, and verifying claims against official political party platforms and public statements.Voters should be critical of news that comes from unknown media outlets, that lacks legitimate or verified sources, as well as information that is inflammatory or that aims to elicit strong emotional responses. Although verifying information may seem embarrassing and daunting, it is not a task you must do alone. We can look to fact checking websites and supporting resources like CPJ’s Election Bulletin and workshops by the Public Policy Forum.
For more information, feel free to consult the Public Policy Forum’s three free public lectures explaining how our democracy is affected by the manipulation of information and trust on digital platforms. Anyone can learn more about explainer animations, lecture highlights and full lectures that explore these topics.
Photo by Warren Wong is licensed under CC0