These acts are not harmless. Beyond potentially swaying the results of an election, and poisoning our democratic process, they can also create dangerous tears in our social fabric. The idea is to polarize us and make us angry and distrustful.
“With all of the attention to ‘Nothing is true, and nothing is real, and everything is biased,’…our worry is that we’re shifting to an ‘I don’t believe anything’ culture,” says Kathryn Ann Hill, executive director of MediaSmarts, a not-for-profit organization that promotes digital and media literacy. “That’s not a good thing because it’s a clear road to apathy, feelings of a lack of ability to have any investment in our political system or our electoral system — it’s a bad thing for democracy.”
Sure, we can look to our leaders and public servants to do something about this. Elections Canada, for example, has said it will be using artificial intelligence to try to stamp out as much disinformation about the electoral process as possible. The agency is also consulting with other countries to find out what they are doing. France passed a law against misinformation this past summer that would allow content to be removed from the Internet after a quick judicial review. The legislation has been criticized as infringing on free speech.
The Public Policy Forum, in an August 2018 report on disinformation, recommended the creation of a “nimble organization outside of government for ongoing and long-term monitoring, research and policy development” around the issue. It also called for a legal requirement that all digital producers and disseminators of content identify themselves and their beneficial owners clearly on their platforms.
But we as citizens also have an important role to play. If only we could regard the triage of online content as something we do as routinely as separating the plastics from the paper for recycling.
It’s not going to be easy. A recent study published in the journal Intelligence linked susceptibility to misinformation to cognitive ability — something that wanes as we get older. In a December 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of respondents said they had shared misinformation online, either deliberately or unwittingly.
Political scientist Thierry Giasson, the lead researcher at the Research Group on Political Communication at Université Laval, recently convened experts on media education at a conference in Montreal. The goal was to answer some key questions about news literacy, media education and citizenship, and ultimately to produce a white paper for the Quebec government on expanding media literacy into the curriculum as a stand-alone area of instruction. The Canadian experts brought together for the conference hope to create a network that is focused on the issue.
Giasson points to the “30 seconds” campaign by the Fédération Professionnelle des Journalistes du Québec, which urges people to take 30 seconds to read a piece of online content before sharing it. “Look at the source: where is this coming from? Usually a source is clearly identified. Is it a legitimate news organization?” says Giasson.
“You need to check it out before you share it. Where is the link taking you? Is it taking you to the original source or to another website? If you doubt for a single second that it’s not legitimate, don’t share it.”
MediaSmarts has developed a range of resources for the public and for educators on authenticating information online. Says Hill, “Check the original source. Don’t assume it’s true because a lot of people shared it, or it’s going viral on social media…or it’s the first result that came up in your search engine. People assume that’s a ranking, and it’s not.”
Plenty of us feel indignant when we get the calls from the telephone scam artists claiming to work for the bank or Windows or the Canada Revenue Agency. How dare they try to pull one over on me! But we’re not angry or smart enough yet about the foreign and domestic players who are trying to distort our democratic process and just make everything we trust feel wobbly.
Our New Year’s resolution as citizens should be to declare ourselves the first line of defence against the weaponization of lies.
© Policy Options