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Canadians like to think of ourselves as somehow separate from the mess going on south of the border.
Widespread, sophisticated disinformation campaigns; powerful foreign governments and domestic interests alike manipulating public opinion and elections through social media — that couldn’t happen here, right?
But the record shows it not only could happen here — it already is.
"I think Canadians should be terrified, honestly," said Sue Gardner, Executive Director of The Markup and former Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation. Gardner was speaking before a sold out Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver at an SFU panel Tuesday night called: "Confronting the Disinformation Age." The moderator, CBC’s Ian Hanomansing, had asked Gardner how disinformation would impact Canadians in the 2019 federal election.
Terrified is a strong word, but I am concerned. We’ve already experienced everything from robocalls deliberately misinforming voters about polling locations, to hoax memes and phony news stories pushing hate and mistrust. Maybe you saw that story about Canadian soldiers killed in 2016 in a battle in Ukraine… or the Rebel Media stories stirring up doubts about the attack on the Quebec City mosque… or the Toronto Sun’s column claiming refugees were slaughtering goats in a hotel. (For the record? All of them were groundless.)
So there’s every reason to think the disinformation offensive will only ramp up as we approach the 2019 federal election.
And there’s every reason to worry it’s going to contaminate and distort the campaign, and the result.
Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, on the SFU panel, predicted things will play out in Canada much like they have in most of Europe and the United States, "targeting specific groups of people who are more prone to believe certain things and aggravating them to the point of mobilizing them to share certain things and do certain things."
Gardner talked about the "attention economy" and the algorithms that work to keep us on our phones and computers. They trigger powerful emotions of joy and rage and that makes people vulnerable to sharing disinformation. Panelist David Frum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic said this can happen even when a story is completely "farcically untrue." He used as an example a fake story that went viral during the American election saying the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump.
Whether the people behind these campaigns are foreign governments bent on undermining civil society, corporate interests hoping to forestall climate action and a shift to clean energy, or just hateful cranks who want to sow hate and division, you deserve to know who they are. And what they’re doing. And how to fight it.
The federal government is taking action to counter some of the worst of it, including an online portal about cyber threats to democracy, but there’s only so much they can do.
Reporters for our newspapers and broadcast outlets are doing their best, but too often their publishers and editors aren’t interested in pursuing those stories — not when there’s easier, cheaper stuff to cover that gets a lot more clicks.
And you and I both know the social media giants aren’t up to the task.
So if we want people to be able to make informed decisions at the ballot box, we’re all going to have to step up.
That’s why National Observer is launching the Election Integrity Reporting Project: our biggest ever reporting initiative, aimed at exposing manipulation and the people behind it. We’re building a strong, data-savvy team, raising funds to hire some of the best analysts out there. And we’ll be partnering with key civil society organizations.
We’ve already done some great reporting on the machinery of manipulation at work in Canada today, like our coverage of the bot army amplifying Doug Ford’s campaign message in the Ontario election last year. And we’re leading by example, meticulously fact-checking our stories and—at managing editor Mike De Souza’s dogged insistence—calling multiple sources on stories, ensuring a wide range of perspectives.
Now we want to take that work to the next level. The Election Integrity Reporting Project will be a key focus for the National Observer not just through the election, but for at least one year afterward. The forces of manipulation aren’t planning to rest after election day, and neither should we.
The stakes we’re playing for could not be higher. We’re already behind the eight ball on climate change; we can’t afford to lose four years of action. Political dialogue is plumbing new depths of mistrust and polarization, at the very time when we need collective action the most. And hate continues to find new footholds, as even established political parties flirt with the alt-right.
So I’m inviting you to follow our work in the coming months closely. And please, don’t just follow it: join it. David Frum, speaking on the SFU panel, made a very good point when he said: "Information is paid for by somebody and if it’s not paid by you, you need to think very hard about who is paying for it and why."
Spread the word, and help push back the flood of misinformation. When you find suspicious efforts to manipulate and misinform, get in touch with me and let me know. And if you’re able to, consider donating to help us build our team.
As the SFU panel wrapped up, Sue Gardner urged Canadians not to go on with business as usual. "The world is f**ked right now. Like seriously. For real. Donald Trump is President. Democracy is crumbling all over the place...There’s all kinds of things happening around Canada. It’s extremely unnerving," she said.
Ian Hanomansing pushed back: "In Canada we’re not in danger of the world burning down."
Wylie shot back. "Neither was the US before Trump." People didn't see Brexit coming in England. Nor did they believe Trump could win. "The more complacent people are and the more we accept the narrative that these unforeseeable events wouldn’t happen is when they happen," he said.
Here's what I think. The biggest victory those who want to manipulate Canadian opinion and Canadian elections could have is if people who believe in truth — who believe in an informed public and an effective democracy — were to give up. We won’t. We can fight this. We can win.
Let’s get started, shall we?
This story was updated at 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM and at 9:29 on Thursday to add comments from the panelists at Confronting the Disinformation Age. You can watch the SFU panel here.
Read more about The Election Integrity Reporting Project here.