An archivist who studies Soviet propaganda and works for Canada’s national library is calling on Facebook to reveal more of its plan to boost media literacy in an age of rampant misinformation.
Jennifer Anderson, archivist for science, environment and economy at Library and Archives Canada, has investigated how false or exaggerated information originating in the Soviet Union filtered through Western groups and publications, and how some Canadians came to sincerely believe an egalitarian society existed there.
Anderson sees parallels with that world and the one dominated today by social media networks like Facebook, where Russia-linked political posts that centered on the 2016 U.S. presidential election were seen by 126 million Americans over a two-year period.
Facebook is attempting to root out deceptive practices on its site, after it uncovered evidence that Russia-linked actors bought thousands of ads on its platform designed to worsen political divisions in the run-up to the election.
U.S. law enforcement has also named a dozen Kremlin-connected Russians perpetuating a misinformation campaign to boost the chances of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Facebook has been fending off a torrent of criticism over a data scandal, where a firm linked to Trump’s campaign improperly used private information harvested from the site to help predict Americans' political leanings.
The archivist said Monday she wants to hear more about Facebook’s “forward-thinking strategies" for educating people on how to tell fact from fiction when scrolling through their social media feeds.
“It's not enough just to have the conversation, they (Facebook) have to be thinking towards responses,” Anderson told National Observer in an interview on June 18.
“We need to have a goal at the end of the discussion. That's where I'm trying to nudge them, towards having a few goals in mind. And I don't know if I got the response to my questions.”
'What are they actually doing to encourage trust?'
Anderson was speaking after her appearance on a panel in Ottawa on misinformation online that was jointly held by Library and Archives Canada and Facebook Canada.
The panel, moderated by Librarian and Archivist of Canada Guy Berthiaume, was part of Facebook Canada’s “hard questions” roundtable series which has also held events on women’s safety, privacy and Indigenous culture and content.
The Russian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment before publication.
The government archivist said she still had questions about how far the company was willing to go in terms of privacy protection.
The Commons access to information committee has recommended an update of the country's privacy law, including stronger consent to use personal data; the federal privacy watchdog has called for enforcement powers such as fines.
Anderson wondered what was Facebook’s plan to get people to trust the platform. Library and Archives Canada does work to educate people on what an archivist does, she said, and “I would say the same probably applies to a big corporation like Facebook.”
“If people feel that they're not trusting the corporation, why is it? What are they actually doing to encourage trust? What is their plan in terms of outreach? What is their plan towards independent research?” she asked.
On the panel, Facebook’s director of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher pointed to Facebook's funding of information literacy and media literacy campaigns, like its partnership with MediaSmarts, an Ottawa-based digital and media literacy organization.
The two released a video, for example, designed to counter misinformation by suggesting cautionary steps to take before sharing posts on social networks.
Facebook has also launched the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative ahead of the 2019 Canadian federal election that includes the MediaSmarts partnership as well as a guide for information security, a "cyber threats crisis email line" and more disclosure of political advertising.
Fake news, security challenge or democracy problem
Gleicher said misinformation is a “societal challenge," one that no single organization could tackle alone.
He said he saw “information operations,” the term the company uses to describe how "actors" like governments or others pursue a set of goals using various tactics online, as a "security challenge," or a constantly evolving battlefield with no "silver bullet."
Instead, he said, Facebook is trying to reduce the amount of information operations by using "differentiated friction" to make them harder, slower and more expensive to carry out, while still allowing people to build legitimate communities.
One method is to break up groups of users that have been built up to amplify a particular fake or misleading message, he said.
“To mount an effective information operation on social media you have to build a large community,” said Gleicher. Destroying those, he said, means actors are forced to build new ones, eating up time and resources.
Facebook is also building automated tools to identify "common behaviours" and then make those actions harder to accomplish. One common example, said Gleicher, is that actors will intentionally create a persona that looks like they’re interacting with the community they’re trying to influence.
Chris Dornan, associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication and another panelist, saw the issue of misinformation differently — as a consequence of the move away from centralized political discourse to one driven by social communication.
That, he said, is compromising liberal democracies, because digital communications have "superseded what were once authoritative agencies of social cohesion.” Into that void has stepped fringe or extreme views, ones that seldom found expression before, but have now been granted license as equal partners to legitimate news sources.
But Jeremy Kinsman, former Canadian high commissioner to the U.K., the European Union and to Russia, said Canadians have more “insulation” against the phenomenon of fake news.
“I think we have a shared narrative that the Americans no longer have,” said Kinsman. “They have identity — we're number one — but underneath that it's complete polarization of society. And that, we don't have.”