A recent study in Science showed that fake news often spread faster than truth, and in this case, the initial Fox News tweet mislabeling the shooter had been retweeted more than 900 times, and liked 1,500 times, though many had replied to the tweet calling for a correction.
Breitbart reported an update that the Muslim man in police custody was a "witness," but kept its full original text of the story that named him as a suspect on the site. Montreal-based daily newspaper La Presse, by contrast, took down its initial article naming Belkhadir as a suspect after learning that he wasn't a suspect, and set the record straight. A far-right site's headline, "What They Won’t Tell Us About the Quebec Mosque Attack," suggested these corrections were made by mainstream media to help "shift" or obscure the Muslim suspect's role in the attack.
So don’t ask: is Canada vulnerable to fake news? It’s already here! The question is: can we fight it off?
As you probably know pretty well by now if you read this publication, I'm its founder and editor-in-chief. I’m also someone who has lived with one foot in Canada and another in the United States. I came to Canada from the United States several years ago. To be honest, fake news is exactly the kind of thing I came here to get away from. As a newer-than-most citizen of this country, can I just say to my fellow Canadians? Fake news is like American beer. It just isn't worth importing.
The folks who asked me "Is Canada vulnerable to fake news?" were from the Global PR Summit. They asked me to give a talk on the subject in November. The easy answer, as I said, is not only, yes, but it’s already here infecting our news feeds. But after researching the problem for that talk, which I gave a few weeks ago in Toronto, I realized the problem is growing daily, even as thousands of people around the world work to solve it. I learned some things I'd like to share with you.
When I say fake news, I’m talking about the gamut of untrustworthy material — from fact-averse content generated within our borders, to propaganda campaigns from foreign governments. If we want to know whether Canada can withstand the fake news onslaught, the place to start is the nearest liberal democracy that didn’t manage to: the United States.
The scope and depth of fake news penetration into U.S. civil society is staggering. Yes, there’s the Russian endeavour out of the Internet Research Institute in St. Petersburg which allegedly hired hundreds of people to pump out online content and targeted the 2016 election as early as 2014. There’s also Alex Jones and Infowars, and countless mini-Infowars out there spinning the most inflammatory, outrageous fictions. And they easily predate Russian involvement. Alex Jones has been calling school shooting victims’ families “crisis actors” or “false flag operations” for years, long before he seized upon the tragedy in Quebec City. From Sandy Hook to Parkland, Jones has engaged in monstrous disinformation campaigns that have compounded the suffering for families of victims and survivors of school shootings.
Why was the U.S. so vulnerable to fake news?
That’s going to be the stuff of academic studies for the next twenty years. But just living there, as an American, I could see the cornerstones getting chipped away long before 2016, even before Twitter and Facebook came along and added accelerant to the distribution of fake news.
In fact, in the USA, for decades the conditions have been ripening for fake news to take hold. Education, particularly in civics and history, has been eroding since Sputnik stirred a panic push for science schooling. Facebook and Twitter prospered in part because they filled a void left by the decline of community and civil society, from churches and legion halls, to unions and sports teams. One academic, Robert Putnam, wrote a book to describe this called Bowling Alone in 2000 — it described the erosion of in-person social interactions that Americans used to rely on to enrich the fabric of their lives.
Then there has been the relentless attack on the role of government. And the equally relentless attack on the news media: eroding their credibility day in and day out over their supposed liberal bias, despite the fact that many media owners are conservative. The result is that much of the American media now bends over backwards to prove they’re being fair and balanced — to a segment of the audience that’s no longer listening. And those who want to listen may not have anything to listen to. A University of North Carolina Study out just last month says that more than 1,300 American communities have completely lost news coverage.
This isn’t a recipe for a robust body politic, able to fend off attacks from within or without. It’s a recipe for rumour and myth to explode, and for charlatans to take center stage.
Is Canada any better off? Why people say “yes”
So, is our body politic any healthier?
When I ask Canadians about that, I often hear that we’re fine. We’re in great shape. We have no need to worry. Why? Well, they say, our schools are better and we have a more educated population. Certainly the OECD thinks so — they rank us first in the world for the number of adults with a post-secondary education. The U.S. is sixth. They’ll point to the CBC. And yes: we have a great public broadcaster with a solid news organization and broad public support. There’s broad public support and respect for science as well — and for fans of objective truth and expertise, that’s good news. One of the goals of the fake news attack from Russia was to worsen divisions in the U.S. I hear from Canadians that we’re more of a multicultural country, with an ingrained respect for diversity.
There is a lot of truth here to be proud of. But there are also misconceptions and a touch of complacency about how united we truly are.
We’re a target: four big vulnerabilities
Canada is one of the world’s crown jewel progressive liberal democracies. Our fundamentals are sound, while other western democracies are faltering. That, I’m afraid, makes us a target. From without…but also from within. Because there are plenty of Canadians who draw inspiration from authoritarians and their communications strategies. And while Canada has some real advantages in defending our civil society, let’s not kid ourselves.
Let’s look at four particular ways that Canada is vulnerable to fake news.
The first is scale.
It’s a big country when you’re trying to get from one coast to another. It’s a much smaller country if you want to tilt the scales in our elections. Relative to the U.S., it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a difference. For instance, the Mercer Family Foundation has very deep pockets. In April, we learned they funded an organization producing anti-Muslim conspiracy theory videos — videos that then got repackaged for the Canadian audience. Robert Mercer is a billionaire who invested $10 million in Breitbart.com and rescued Trump's campaign when it floundered after the Republican Convention. Along with Steve Bannon, Mercer founded Cambridge Analytica, the British firm credited with spreading fake news during the Brexit campaign and again during the 2016 U.S. election. The New York Times and The Observer reported that the company had acquired and used personal data about Facebook users from an external researcher who had told Facebook he was collecting it for academic purposes. The company also ran Donald Trump's digital campaigns.
You’ve probably heard the Canada-U.S. relationship described as being like a mouse and an elephant sharing a bed: if the elephant sneezes, the mouse catches a cold. Well, an elephant-sized budget can make a big difference in a mouse-sized media landscape, so one can only hope that Canada's election does not become of interest to Mercer. But our very proximity to the United States increases our vulnerability to fake news fueled and funded by those living south of the border.
Our second vulnerability is exploitable divisions.
A lot of the fake news targeting the U.S. exploited issues of race. Well, we have divisions of our own. Definitely around race: look at the debate over race and policing. Look at discussions around Aboriginal land title. Look at the debate on immigration and refugee policy, and the so-called values-testing some politicians want to apply to newcomers. We have historical divisions around language, over climate policy — over pipelines and resources. And look at the intersections between energy and climate change, fossil fuel production and carbon policy. These are areas of big division in Canada and areas that many actors in the world would dearly like to exploit.
And we also know that this is crippling the health and long term interests of our country. We have cleavages between regions and an urban/rural gulf that is cultural, economic and social. If you’re looking to use fake news to exploit divisions among Canadians, you have a buffet of choices to exploit. And when it comes to national trauma… no, we didn’t fight a civil war in Canada. And we didn't have an economy built on slavery. What we do have… is our failure to truly confront our history of colonialism and its legacy for Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Yes, reconciliation has taken us part way down that road. A lot of people are doing some admirable work in good faith. But if you’re looking for meaningful change — whether its practical, or in the hearts of Canadians, we have a very long way to go.
Our third vulnerability is the state of our news media.
Especially outside the CBC. After years of mergers and closures, with newsrooms pared back again and again, and reporters constantly being told to do more and more with less and less… it’s kind of a miracle we still have quality journalism being produced in Canada. I’m grateful for what we do have. My own publication, the National Observer, has partnered with folks like the Toronto Star and Global TV on several deep investigative pieces. But newsrooms are spread terribly thin. There are huge gaps in coverage. Time was when most major newsrooms had a reporter on the labour beat, to take one example. Today? Off the top of my head, I can only think of one in the whole country.
At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, there was only a single Canadian reporter. I should know — I sent him. It was Mike De Souza, National Observer’s managing editor. Our news media is in retreat and has been for well over a generation. And that risks leaving the field wide open to others who are a lot less interested in reporting the truth or ascertaining the facts. April Lindgren of Ryerson University has chronicled the disruption of news media in Canada. She found that the decline in print and other traditional media was far outstripping the rise of new digital media. We certainly hope that changes. But for now, these are exactly the kinds of conditions that created “news deserts” in the United States where ill informed residents were vulnerable to fake news.
That brings me to the fourth great vulnerability, and that’s — if you’ll forgive me — a touch of smugness.
I’m especially guilty of that as an immigrant. I love to compare things in Canada to the state of affairs in the USA, and tell myself “What a good choice I made!” It's only human, right?
And look, Canada has probably earned a little swagger as it faces the world. It IS a special and wonderful country. But we can’t let ourselves start thinking that it can’t happen here. We take things for granted at our peril. We can’t let ourselves start thinking that Canadians are too smart to be fooled. Or that we’re too polite and gentle to be turned against each other with fictions and lies, because that simply isn’t true.
Fake news, Canadian style.
So let me see what I can do to encourage us to replace smugness with vigilance.
The apparatus that creates fake news is here and functioning, as we've seen from the mosque shootings, which also illustrated how it is often fed or inspired by its American counterpart. For those who think it can’t happen here, consider these examples that already have happened here:
*Our investigative team at National Observer reported on a small army of anonymous Twitter accounts tweeting pro-Doug-Ford, anti-Kathleen-Wynne content with “inhuman frequency” during Ontario's provincial election. These accounts weren’t real people, they weren't sharing real news. They were bots. You may not realize this, but on Twitter, bots produce 60 per cent of the links.
Last fall, there was a truly disturbing story around the Radisson Hotel Toronto East — one that BuzzFeed did a great job of reporting, by the way. The hotel is a temporary home to hundreds of people who are seeking asylum in Canada. White nationalists have turned that into a rallying point for the alt-right. And some people have flooded the hotel’s listing on TripAdvisor with fake reviews making incredibly racist allegations, including a claim that occupants slaughtered goats in the bathrooms. That in itself is fake news of a sort. But where it really took off is when the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy wrote a column that cribbed from those fake reviews — and used no other sources — to paint a picture of a hotel under siege. And her column exploded with thousands of shares and comments on Facebook. White nationalists like Faith Goldy then quoted the column on YouTube. Think about what just happened there. Fake reviews cycled through a mainstream media columnist as news! Basically, that’s hoax laundering. Just as I was putting the final touches on this piece, and a couple of months after the original story appeared, the self-regulating News Media Council censured the Toronto Sun, saying they committed a “serious breach of journalistic standards” for publishing the column that falsely reported refugees were slaughtering goats at a Scarborough hotel.
“The (council) supports the wide latitude afforded to opinion writers to express unpopular views, but is of the view that columnists must adhere to the journalistic standards of the news media organization, including commitment to accuracy,” the National NewsMedia Council said in the statement.
Nonetheless, the purveyors of this stuff are carefully working at building their credibility. Faith Goldy, fired by a far right website after she went on a podcast with a well-known Nazi site, will be known to Torontonians as the candidate who came in third in Toronto's mayoral election, garnering over 25,000 votes. Goldy, whose campaign included anti-immigrant policies, once wrote an article suggesting there was “white genocide” in Canada, The Globe and Mail reported. “Vote Faith Goldy for mayor and Toronto ceases to be a Sharia safe space,” she said in a tweet.
Tweet from Faith Goldy on October 7, 2018, suggesting that Toronto was at risk of being influenced by Muslim laws.
Months earlier, following the murder of 10 people on Yonge Street by the driver of a van, Goldy rushed to the scene where she live streamed that it was a terrorist attack.
She failed to mention that it was an attack by a deranged individual targeting women.
"I’m at Yonge and Finch, which has become a scene to what folks are now calling a terrorist attack on the streets of Toronto,” she said. Others who Macleans called 'conspiracy mongers' followed up on Goldy's insinuation by tweeting the blatant fake news that the driver was 'a radical Muslim waging jihad.' Alex Jones, of the demented conspiracy site Infowars jumped in, posting an article with the headline, “Identity released of Islamic man who used truck to kill 10 in Toronto.” From Texas, Jones ranted for nearly 30 minutes that mainstream media was covering up the truth about Alek Minassian. Minassian, it turned out, was a Christian.
And then there is Jack Posobiec. He was instrumental in driving the Pizzagate conspiracy hoax. If you don't know what Pizzagate is, read this Rolling Stone story by Amanda Robb who has also written for National Observer on a related story about the French election. Pizzagate is an example of how a fake news story repeated over and over on a big platform like Infowars incited a real person to pick up a real gun and attempt to shoot real people to right a fake wrong. It should be alarming that Jack also served as a correspondent for a far-right Canadian website for two months.
“The amount of deceptive, fake and misleading information and accounts targeting elected officials and diminishing the debate on social media platforms, particularly on Twitter, is increasingly concerning and, frankly unacceptable,” Cameron Ahmad, a spokesman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, told The Globe and Mail last July. "Social media companies should immediately take action to fight back against those who deceive and manipulate for political gain.... Right now it remains clear that more action must be taken.” The Globe and Mail reported that a number of Liberals were "angry over false information that has recently circulated on Twitter, including one allegation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, amassed a fortune of US$23-million while working for the Ontario and Canadian governments. In another case, a false account in the likeness of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna claimed she was against politicians paying for their own lunches." But apparently, none of this was true.
Here’s the thing about fake news. We’re only now getting a handle on the full extent of its reach and impact on the U.S. election two years ago. What we’re seeing now in Canada are initial forays… and a lot of motion under the surface of the water. We aren’t going to spot the full scale of future fake news campaigns of manipulation until they are already well under way.
Unfortunately, fake news has the power to pack a big emotional, long lasting punch. "Fake news can distort people’s beliefs even after being debunked," according to an article in Scientific American. A false story repeated over and over can seem true to people, even when contrary facts are presented. A study recently published in the journal Intelligence "suggests that some people may have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation. Asked to rate a fictitious person on a range of character traits, people who scored low on a test of cognitive ability continued to be influenced by damaging information about the person even after they were explicitly told the information was false. The study is significant because it identifies what may be a major risk factor for vulnerability to fake news."
Swarms from the south, swarms from the east
What you don't know can hurt you. RT.com, the media arm of the Russian government, is often described as ‘Putin’s propaganda machine.’ A story RT.com published about Faith Goldy, the white nationalist who ran for mayor in Toronto this last election, contains some ominous rhetoric that hints at Canada's vulnerability. "Its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is an unashamedly globalist and neo-liberal center-leftist of the kind that has been punished by electorates throughout the Western world, while the opposition leader, the one-time boy wonder Andrew Scheer, is the sort of lip-service conservative against whom movements like the Tea Party formed," RT proclaims, adding later that:
“On the surface, Canada appears primed for at least a facsimile of the political revolution south of its border."
We Canadians sometimes think of ourselves as small. But Canada is a G7 country. A NATO member. And this is really important - we are the fourth largest producer of oil and gas in the world (depending how you measure these things). So it would be naive to think that Canada’s vulnerabilities will not be preyed upon by Russian fake news sites in the 2019 election here in Canada, as American society was preyed upon by those same fake news sites in 2016. It is happening already.
Fake news has already had cruel and lethal effects on Canadian society. Aimed at specific demographics,YOU may never see a piece of fake news about a candidate you love, but that doesn’t mean hundreds of others aren’t seeing it. You may be taken by surprise by learning after the damage is done about large scale campaigns of manipulation. In the 2019 federal election in Canada, you are sure to see social media accounts that appear to be real people that are actually bots. Some of the most critical of Canada’s government and society may seem to be coming from disenchanted people and yet they may well be aimed at Canada from Russian troll factories.
The fakery gets better and better
And as DeepFakes have started to make voice and video alteration technology available to the public, we are entering another new era that is likely to be even more disorienting. The goal of DeepFakes is to make it look like someone is doing or saying something they’re not. It isn't that easy now, although people are doing it, but it is going to get easier, experts say. That video the White House released of CNN reporter Jim Acosta supposedly touching a young female White House intern [he was really just asking Trump a question Trump seriously didn't want to answer]. That was a deepfake, doctored to make it look like something happened that didn't. Deep fakes, real ramifications.
What we know for certain from watching Brexit, the U.S. presidential election and more recently, the Brazilian election, is that bad actors will continue to use technology to spread confusion, to promulgate hate, and try to sweep far-right ‘populists’ into power. Fake news can lead to some very real outcomes. And so you may wonder...what are the protections already in motion in Canada? Well, the government definitely knows fake news is a problem. They had a Parliamentary hearing on the state of the media in 2016 and heard from media companies across Canada about the closures of newspapers and loss of journalist jobs in the thousands. Elections Canada is now working across several departments to strengthen cyber security and prevent hacking and boost public awareness about election interference. Justin Trudeau warned Facebook Canada in February to fix its fake news problem or face tighter restrictions. The feds have allocated some $500 million dollars in the 2019 budget to strengthen local journalism. They seem keenly aware of the potential fake news has to damage Canada and the importance of journalism as a pillar of democracy. And they’ve kept CBC’s budget intact.
In my opinion, these are good protections and I'm glad for them, but I'm not sure they are enough to protect Canada from the swarm of ‘fake news’ that has hit other countries during elections. Having fake news in the mix during an important election causes extra anxiety. On top of melting ice caps, superstorms, monster fires, hate crimes, gun violence, war, human suffering made immediate through your computer and smartphone, having to differentiate between what’s fake and what’s real during an election takes a toll. As we approach the federal election, we will have to be critical thinkers and use social media with our skepticism intact.
Let’s hear from Canada’s electronic spy agency - specifically on how likely we are to see meddling in our upcoming election. “Very likely” — that’s the evaluation from Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, as told to National Observer over a year ago. And things are worse today. They already discovered “low-sophistication cyber threat activity” in the 2015 election. The agency said it expects interventions in 2019 will be well-planned, with targets ranging from voter suppression and stealing party information to fake news campaigns trying to discredit candidates.
How do we inoculate Canada against the fake news virus?
So, what can we do?
Much is being done in Canada and around the world to understand and overcome the enormous challenge of fake news. Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is also the co-author, with Taylor Owen of 'The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley re-engineered journalism." Bell told a roundtable of 37 Canadian news executives I attended last year in Ottawa, 'we're only one minute into a long journey that began with the information collapse of 2016', a collapse she likened to the economic collapse of 2008. As events have made clear, there's too much at stake to hope the Internet giants or regulatory bodies will take care of the problem of fake news without enormous, relentless government intervention. So, who will?
Each of us needs to be a part of the fight against fake news. Start by learning the lessons from the U.S. and anywhere else that fake news has interfered with civic conversation. Not just learning from what went wrong, but also from how people are responding. For example, NewsGuard is a new startup that provides ratings in your browser of the news sites you visit — so you know if you’re visiting a publication that meets the basic standards of journalism. The Trust Project gives news with integrity a nifty 'Trust Mark'. Factama is another project. It is exploring how to use AI to recognize fake news and notify readers. Facebook has been credited since the U.S. midterms of making strides in reducing the fake news that reached voters and WhatsApp has been working to reduce fake news that has incited violence in India. These initiatives are great. But they are only the first step. One layer of defence.
I talked earlier about the body politic. Well, you can think of fake news as a viral infection that threatens it. Just as the human body’s immune system relies on multiple layers of defence, we have to as well. And just as your chances at fighting off an infection are a lot better if you’re already fit and healthy, we have to ensure Canada’s civil society is a lot stronger. We have to rebuild the underlying resilience of our institutions, and the faith that Canadians have in them. We have to rekindle the interest and engagement of Canadians in the stories unfolding in our own backyard. This is the danger of the Trump carnival — it distracts from the narrative of your own world, your community, even noticing the street outside your window. It’s addictive — because it’s so viscerally dramatic. But it’s time for us to stop looking to news for that surge of cheap adrenaline. Less drama means a better functioning system; the show may not be as good, but the outcome is so much better.
Examine your own use of news. I say use because we need to stop thinking about news as entertainment — or a drug. It's so important that you and I get our drama on Netflix, iTunes and Crave. Get your news from your own community, in your own backyard, your own country — so that when you go out to vote, you’re armed with solid knowledge. We're going to have to become a nation of 36 million antibodies.
We also have to help individuals do a better job of spotting fake news before they spread it. My industry, the news media, has to double our efforts to stay credible and relevant. We need more transparency, so that readers and viewers know that what they’re getting is sourced and accurate, and gathered and reported according to professional standards.
A strong news media offers a counterweight to propaganda and malicious fiction. It’s an authoritative way to separate the real from the false. But every time we give in to the temptation to post clickbait, every time we trivialize our own work to pander to our metrics, it erodes our credibility. We need to find new business models that reduce the incentive to drive clicks at all costs. We also need to recognize the critical role that the CBC plays as a well-resourced public broadcaster. It’s under constant attack, and we should be doing a better job of reporting on the very real good that the CBC does in support of Canadian civic life.
I also, very candidly, want a lot more company. Even if that means more competition. National Observer focuses on under-covered areas across Canada, telling stories that other media don't have the budget for or interest in — but I’d like to see a lot more of us telling more stories in communities across the country. And we need to be willing and ready to call out blatant propaganda when we see it. He said/she said reporting is not up to the challenge of confronting a steady campaign of outright lies.
That's what it will take because we face a continuous, deliberate, planned assault on the truth. Not just on the facts themselves, but on truth as an idea. On truth as a value worth defending. And for those who believe in that value, for those who believe the pursuit of truth is in any way sacred, this is war. “Fake news” is a tactic, not a strategy. The strategy is to:
undermine our trust in democratic institutions
undermine our trust in sources of information
and undermine our trust in each other
and to put whole nations under its spell.
Fake news is the tool of choice for authoritarians. Authoritarianism and hate have something in common: a simple, dramatic story. The truth will always be messier. To prevail, truth needs space and focused attention. And this work, this war, needs skilled storytellers, thousands and thousands of trained journalists, who are experienced and compassionate, and people like you, who will subscribe to and pay for real news. We need journalists more than ever to tell good, honest stories that let us better know each other. It will take thousands of journalists empowered by millions of readers. It will take a tsunami of truth.
© [National Observer] (https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/12/14/opinion/oh-canada-dont-be-smug-fake-news-real-and-present-threat)