Pervasive disinformation around Canada’s voluntary fertilizer reduction plan makes it hard to have a rational discussion on this critical topic, Green and NDP MPs say.

Conservative politicians, the fossil fuel lobby and right-wing groups are spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation about the federal government’s fertilizer reduction plans online, an investigation by Canada’s National Observer revealed earlier this week.

“If we allow disinformation and conservative rhetoric to embed the farming community in a mindset that thinks that climate action is against their interests, when climate action is entirely [in] their interest, then we've set things up very, very badly for a transition that must occur towards more local food, more organic food, more farms that are producing multiple crops…” Green MP Elizabeth May told Canada’s National Observer in an interview.

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre is among those posting misleading information. In a video posted on Facebook on Sept. 16, Poilievre said the federal government’s “proposed fertilizer cuts” will drive food prices higher and hurt farmers. This sentiment is echoed in much of the disinformation circulating on social media and is even echoed in the House of Commons.

This is yet another example of the so-called “rage farming” that seems to permeate Canadian politics these days where, to score political points, politicians are trying to really stir the pot to just drive the conversation on something, said NDP agriculture critic Alistair MacGregor. “What's missing from this conversation is the fact that there are farmers who are actually leading the way and they are adopting practices which are leading to less fertilizer use.”

On Sept. 27, Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk told the House of Commons “nonsensical policies like the Liberal plan to cap fertilizer use hurt farm operations and jeopardize food security globally” and at home. It is important to note the federal government’s proposal is voluntary and aims to encourage reductions. There are no forced reductions or caps.

“We really need to figure out the future of farming and the future of food through a climate lens,” said May. “The current debate obviously takes us in the wrong direction because it alienates people and entrenches different camps around climate and food.”

Disinformation like this can be “corrosive” to the civil discourse, making it almost impossible to have rational conversations, MacGregor told Canada’s National Observer.

“It's really difficult to have a conversation or debate with someone when you're not even occupying the same factual space,” said MacGregor. However, “the fertilizer conversation that's taking place in social media and in some parts of the House of Commons … doesn't reflect the kind of conversations that we usually have at committee.”

'Rage farming' is hurt Canada's civil discourse around fertilizer policy, MPs say. #cdnpoli

May says the issue is “being mishandled deliberately by the Conservatives and unintentionally by the Liberals.” She says the federal government hasn't figured out how to embrace the farming community by creating financial incentives for carbon sequestration, low-till and no-till agriculture.

This summer, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada approved a $500-million increase to $2.5 billion in agricultural subsidies for provinces and territories over five years.

Disinformation around fertilizer is one small example of a much larger problem, said May, pointing to an Abacus Data poll from June that found 44 per cent of the 1,500 Canadians polled believe “big events like wars, recessions and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people working in secret against us.” The poll was conducted between May 20 and 24.

Both May and MacGregor — who is also the NDP’s public safety critic — lay some blame on social media algorithms.

Because social media companies benefit from interactions in the form of clicks, shares or likes, contentious topics that get people riled up drive interaction and “the algorithms feed into that,” leading people down misinformation rabbit holes, said MacGregor.

“Not everyone takes the time to verify if the information is actually true or not, and so that certainly makes our job as parliamentarians a lot more difficult,” he added. “Over the last year, my constituency staff and I are spending a lot more time than we used to trying to counter statements, which are absolutely factually untrue.”

To tackle disinformation writ large, May says the government needs to “clean up” social media sites and expand media literacy education, particularly when it comes to far-right “news” websites.

She stressed censorship is not the right route, but rather ensuring sites publishing as if they are news publications must be held accountable for the content they publish.

Poilievre’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the topic of fertilizer disinformation.

— With files from Marc Fawcett Atkinson

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Back a decade ago the newly formed CPC tried to fix the federal election by having their employees misdirect voters as to where they could vote. And went to jail for that, and it hasn't stopped. Pollievre's whole platform is based on on misinforming us. Like Kenney his gaslighting is effective but false

So, in the social media space, profits are increased by sabotaging the political sphere. This strikes me as an argument for outlawing for-profit social media platforms.

I think we also need to look carefully at how propaganda is funded in our society. The fact is that certain wealthy interests find it worth their while to use some of their money to tilt our politics to enrich them further, and that has a huge impact. We need to seriously curtail such activities.

Back a decade ago the newly formed CPC tried to fix the federal election by having their employees misdirect voters as to where they could vote. And went to jail for that, and it hasn't stopped. Pollievre's whole platform is based on on misinforming us. Like Kenney his gaslighting is effective but false