“Disinformation and misinformation are like sludge in the system,” Ressa explained. “Unfortunately, social media platforms are not taking on the responsibility of clearing that sludge out of our feeds. As a result, we’re living in this sea of lies online.” She showed us, using graphic mapping technology, how public opinion through the Philippine election in 2016 was manipulated by 25 Facebook accounts all pumping out millions of posts on the drug war in that country. The goal: to promote a sense of impending fear, whether or not it was grounded in anything approximating reality, and to proffer the candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte as a solution to this supposedly imminent threat. Duterte was elected, and Ressa and her journalists at Rappler.com have since worked to expose gross human rights abuses committed by his government in the name of the drug war in his country. Since then she has also been fighting “cyberbullying” libel cases put forward by Duterte and his supporters; cases that, if upheld, would result in 20+ years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
Listening to Ressa, it was as though someone took off the blinders. In 1960s and 1970s sub-Saharan Africa, the way to take over a country was to secure the airwaves. Once a would-be despot had control of the country’s radio and TV networks, they had control of everything else.
In 2016, would-be authoritarian leaders took over our minds instead. They achieved this through fake accounts posting false information millions of times, manipulating the information we receive on social media and distorting our sense of reality. As Ressa put it, “A lie told a million times becomes the truth.” In such a light, the strange explosion of authoritarian leaders elected through democratic means—including Duterte, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States—starts to make more sense.
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Last year Canada faced an election in which intelligence services had evidence that similar kinds of misinformation and disinformation attacks threatened to compromise its integrity. Luckily, one of the people listening to Maria Ressa at the Democracy Xchange conference was then-Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould. She wasted no time. Working with Canadian Heritage, the Liberal government has since made a series of policy decisions and funded an array of projects designed to maintain the integrity of our social media space while giving Canadian citizens the tools they need to separate fact from fiction online, including this initiative.
The JHR project will teach credible working journalists and community leaders useful skills to identify and track misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. They will deploy these skills in their work and teach them to an average of 30 peers each across Canada. Community leaders will share these techniques as part of helping citizens become more critical consumers of online content. All training materials will be shared via the online platform to all interested parties. Journalists and media literacy experts were consulted in and led the development of the curriculum, and the tools adopted through the training are useful techniques for monitoring how stories are unfolding online, while watching for disinformation attacks. JHR has also set up a website page to archive project curricula and outcomes.
Enthusiasm back in the classroom at RSJ ran high. Participants provided extensive feedback on the training materials and brainstormed ways to adapt them to the variety of contexts that the 10 journalists would be working with. Said Bill Fortier of CTV Edmonton: “I love this idea. Timely — and important.”
That’s precisely what we at JHR thought.