Prime Minister Trudeau's office admirably took on Fox News over its "false and misleading" reports, ultimately forcing Fox to apologize and retract the reports. But, of course, the lie was already half way around the world.
Ideological fake news is particularly insidious because it can trigger our pre-existing confirmation biases. Anyone hearing the jihadist insinuations was effectively 'pre-suaded' that the mass shooting was a problem with Islam — a blame-the-victim conclusion diametrically opposed to the facts that have emerged since.
By now, most everyone knows that fake news torqued the U.S. election. In the final months of the campaign, viral fake election news got more traction on social media than real news reports from America’s leading 19 news outlets combined. Pope Francis had supposedly endorsed Trump, Clinton had apparently sold weapons to ISIS — 17 of the top 20 fake news stories were blatantly pro-Trump or anti-Clinton.
Even after the results came in, Googling ‘election results’ produced a top story asserting that Trump had won the popular vote.
Media's perfect storm
There’s a perfect storm taking place: The surge in fake news, the towering dominance of Facebook, Twitter and Google as de facto news platforms, and the simultaneous gutting of actual newsrooms and investigative journalism at traditional news outlets.
It’s a storm that threatens to engulf Canada. Because it is not simply a convergence of phenomena — enormous amounts of private money are orchestrating sophisticated propaganda campaigns.
It might sometimes appear that Trump has single-handedly destabilized American politics with a combination of celebrity and off-the-cuff tweets in the early morning hours, but the reality is very different. Activist billionaires like Robert Mercer have financed widespread networks of organizations and massive digital media operations.
Mercer’s Medallion Fund generates annual returns of 72 per cent, far exceeding the dreams even of someone like Warren Buffett. When his favoured candidate, Ted Cruz, dropped out of the race, Mercer placed his bets on Trump. He gave the Trump campaign a sizeable $15 million directly and his networks kicked into gear.
Steve Bannon, of Mercer-funded Breitbart News, took over Trump’s campaign. Kellyanne Conway, formerly with Mercer’s Super Pac, came in as campaign manager. Bloomberg revealed some of the inner workings of a highly sophisticated online data operation dubbed “Project Alamo,” run from a command centre in San Antonio and working hand-in-glove with another Mercer-funded outfit, Cambridge Analytica.
Project Alamo set out to suppress Clinton’s vote in swing states. “We have three major voter suppression operations underway,” one insider candidly told Bloomberg. In one example, Project Alamo placed spots on African American radio stations claiming that “Hillary thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” Similar super predator ads were then targeted to African Americans using Facebook dark posts.
“It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out,” the Trump insider told Bloomberg. “We know because we’ve modeled this.”
Billionaires dominate U.S. cabinet
A small group of American activist billionaires have spent years financing a network of far-right organizations including Breitbart News, Citizens United and climate denial outfits like the Heartland and Heritage Institutes. For more on this, read Dark Money, by The New Yorker staff writer, Jane Mayer.
The return on investment has been impressive. Exxon’s Rex Tillerson is now Secretary of State, climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt will lead the EPA.
Despite campaigning as a populist, Trump has assembled a collection of billionaires and near billionaires who will form the richest cabinet in American history and has stormed out of the gate like a tank division on Muslim immigration, the wall, and fossil fuels. As The Daily Show host Trevor Noah joked, ‘Lord in heaven. Why did the first politician to follow through on his promises have to be Donald Trump?”
Determined to defeat the one remaining check on his power, the media, Trump’s team is using the presidential pulpit to attack mainstream journalists and further polarize his base against reporters and investigative journalists. Trump himself describes a “running war with the media,” and Steve Bannon (now permanently transferred from Breitbart News to the White House, where he is Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist) openly accuses the press of being an “opposition party.”
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut," Bannon told The New York Times in January.
If you’re like us, you’re watching this in shock. And maybe you wonder, what is to be done?
We are already seeing Conservative leadership candidates praising and copying Trump's playbook. Ontario MP Kelly Leitch says that Trump's election victory is an "exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada as well."
And American billionaire climate deniers have begun meddling in Canadian climate and energy politics. The Koch brothers recently announced they were dropping a project in the Alberta oil sands, and blamed "regulatory uncertainty around the Climate Leadership Program and its potential impacts on the project, from carbon tax to the emissions cap, both recently legislated by the Alberta government,” as the reason for the withdrawal.
Brian Jean, leader of Alberta's Wildrose Party, immediately slammed climate action while right wing pundits and social media lit up in fury. But it was all a head fake: Without any publicity, the Kochs quietly applied to build a brand new oil sands facility near Bonnyville, Alta. in that same province supposedly cursed with "regulatory uncertainty."
So what does this all mean for Canada?
Ideology and ownership
The media business is in dire straits and Canadian democracy can ill-afford more narrowing of news coverage, particularly in the current environment. There is already an extremely high level of concentration of ownership and ideological point of view: All but one of Canada’s large newspapers openly backed Stephen Harper in the last election and concentration of media ownership is very high compared to other countries.
The current crisis in journalism is mostly a story about the Internet. American Goliaths like Facebook and Google have built themselves into dominant platforms distributing stories written by news outlets even as they siphon off virtually all the revenue which used to support the journalists.
“That puts costly investigative journalism on life-support, and these two companies are pulling the plug,” wrote award-winning columnist Sandy Garossino in National Observer last year.
To make matters much worse, these giant American companies return increasingly vanishing small amounts in Canadian taxes. If our federal government gets serious about defending real journalism, they could follow the lead of European nations cracking down on the Silicon Valley giants for tax evasion. “We have no business subsidizing American tech giants at the expense of Canadian news organizations,” as Garossino concluded.
The way forward
Ed Greenspon is the former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail and has been immersed in Canadian media for decades. Now head of the Public Policy Forum (PPF), Greenspon has turned his attention to the tools Canadian policy makers could use to address the media crisis.
Greenspon’s report, The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy, and Trust in the Digital Age, was released in January after PPF conducted several months of research including interviews, public opinion surveys and roundtables with Canadian journalists and media owners.
Shattered Mirror finds, encouragingly, that Canadians have “almost reverential respect for the role news and journalism play in a democracy.”
But perplexingly, considering the decades of downsized newsrooms and bankruptcies, “only half of Canadians seem to appreciate that newspapers are truly in trouble, and even fewer feel that way about television news. The fact that they are currently inundated with news runs counter to the notion that the media industry is in peril.”
Half of Canadians may not realize it yet, but “peril” is no exaggeration. More than three million Canadians read Breitbart.com’s racist hard-right ‘news’ site in the last 30 days alone. Are Canadians even reading about Canada? Can they find enough stories about their cities, provinces and national scene, or are they completely distracted by what’s happening in the U.S.?
Canadian news organizations have shed 12,000 positions in the past couple of decades, more than 1,000 just in the past year. As budgets and staff shrink, there is less good reporting overall, but also an insidious shift in the topics that get covered.
“Because feature writing, beat reporting and investigations are now rarer, the news agenda today is more highly skewed to crime, natural disasters and institutional stories driven by press releases and press conferences,” John Cruickshank, former publisher of The Toronto Star, told the PPF.
So you aren’t just imagining things when you sense that the news stories you read about your own world don't reflect what's important. Fake news has surged and real coverage has become more superficial.
Shattered Mirror includes tax reforms in its advice to policy-makers, but the report also makes a series of other recommendations. (National Observer was one of the many news organizations who made presentations to the PPF round tables in addition to testifying before the House of Commons Committee delving into the media crisis.)
The PPF encourages government to reform the CBC with a focus on the “inform” section of its mandate, to establish a local news mandate for The Canadian Press, and to set up an "Indigenous Journalism Initiative,” among other proposals.
It proposes the government “remove obstacles to philanthropic financing,” allowing foundations and other philanthropists to support public interest journalism. It’s a proposal similar to the notion of a “hybrid model” popularized by French economist Julia Cagé in her book Saving the Media: Capitalism, Crowdfunding and Democracy.
Shattered Mirror’s most contentious proposal is for the federal government to set up a “Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund,” effectively an arm’s length mechanism to subsidize the kind of journalism that keeps democracy healthy. The prospect of government taking a more active role funding and defending Canadian journalism has provoked significant pushback ("Keep the government out of the newsrooms of the nation!").
Canadians want news and the PPF report finds that trust in “civic-function” journalism remains strong, but at best, nine per cent of Canadians are willing to pay for their online news today. That's a very precarious foundation for something as crucial as an informed citizenry.
The downward spiral for the news media has no end in sight, and although the problem is far beyond the control of any single government, Shattered Mirror outlines useful and important steps to buttress Canadian public interest journalism through the digital disruption.
But our future is not only in the hands of policy-makers. And as hard as it is, honest conversation is essential.
Let's stand together on this. Let’s call fake news out for what it is: Lies and deliberate misinformation. It’s poison to honest conversation, and it's being orchestrated as propaganda to benefit powerful interests.
Truth is the opposite. Truth is real. Truth is fundamental to accountability and to democracy.
Truth itself is under attack in the United States and that wave can sweep right into Canada.