Score one for Pierre Poilievre. After tattling on the CBC to Elon Musk, who apparently spent $44 billion to become the world’s most powerful digital hall monitor, he notched a victory when the public broadcaster’s main Twitter account was tagged with the same label Twitter has recently stuck on the BBC, PBS and other public broadcasters. “CBC officially exposed as “government-funded media,” he crowed. “Now people know that it is Trudeau propaganda, not news.”
To be clear, there is nothing in the new label — one that, so far, has only been applied to CBC’s corporate account — that actually says that. It’s no secret that the CBC is funded by taxpayers, and it remains editorially independent of the government of the day, just as it was when Poilievre and prime minister Stephen Harper were in power for almost a decade. More to the point, government funding is not tantamount to the dissemination of propaganda, and if it is, then someone should tell the good folks at Postmedia, which collects many millions in government handouts every year.
But Poilievre’s provocative use of the term “propaganda” speaks to his real mission: not informing Canadians but confusing them. Former Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer hinted at this in his 2020 resignation speech. “Challenge the mainstream media,” he said. “Don’t take the left-wing media narrative as fact. Please check out smart, independent, objective organizations like the Post Millennial or True North. There are other places to get news. Let’s stop being the silent majority.”
Poilievre has taken that argument to a whole different level. In addition to his now-familiar broadsides against the CBC, he took a run during a recent press conference at the independence and integrity of The Canadian Press, an organization that has always remained steadfastly apolitical and nonpartisan. “The CBC, frankly, is a biased propaganda arm of the Liberal Party, and negatively affects all media. For example, CP is negatively affected by the fact that you have to report favourably on the CBC if you want to keep your number 1, taxpayer-funded client happy.”
By taking the CBC and other mainstream organizations out to the rhetorical woodshed, Poilievre is trying to create space in the media landscape for organizations like True North (one with clear and unambiguous conservative ties and which also receives government funding through its charitable status) and other right-wing media startups. His repeated claim that the CBC and other mainstream organizations are engaged in “propaganda” is deeply ironic, too, given that the actual propagandists are the ones he’s trying to empower.
This is, by the way, the same strategy Musk is using in his own much larger war with the press — and the truth. The Twitter overlord’s decision to put a “state-affiliated media” label (one he later amended to “government-funded”) on organizations like the BBC, PBS and NPR seems deliberately designed to both undermine their standing with the public and dilute the labels that previous Twitter management had applied to genuinely state-affiliated media organizations like Russia Today, Sputnik and Xinhua. And if Musk’s animus towards legitimate news organizations wasn’t already abundantly clear, he stripped the New York Times — and only the New York Times — of its verification status after it refused to pay the ransom for his Twitter Blue service.
Like the right-wing populist politicians he’s so chummy with, Musk is deliberately muddying the water on what is and isn’t legitimate journalism. In effect, he’s channelling Steve Bannon, who identified the media as the enemy and said the best way to deal with them was “flooding the zone with shit.” With Twitter, Musk has the most powerful shit-flooding device on the planet at his disposal, and he seems determined to use it as aggressively as possible.
That torrent of turds, and Poilievre’s willingness to open the sluice gates here in Canada, is already having an impact on our democracy. EKOS Research founder Frank Graves created a “disinformation index,” a 15-point scale that “measures how strongly respondents have bought into four pieces of disinformation and how strongly they reject one piece of correct information: vaccine-related deaths are being concealed from the public, COVID-19 vaccines can cause infertility, COVID-19 vaccines can alter a patient’s DNA, inflation is much higher in Canada than in the United States, and climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is leading, but the results of this research when they’re applied to partisan preferences are still striking. In a poll conducted earlier this year, those who scored zero (that is, they correctly identified the conspiracy theories and the one piece of accurate information) indicated a strong preference for the Liberals (39 per cent) or NDP (35 per cent), with just 12 per cent supporting the Conservative Party of Canada. But as the disinformation index scores rose, so did Conservative support, with 68 per cent of those with a “high” score of five or above preferring the CPC and 12 per cent supporting the PPC.
What do Elon Musk and Pierre Poilievre have in common? Both want to take the fight to the "mainstream media" — and both are damaging our ability to have a fact-based conversation in the process. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver
It’s no wonder Poilievre wants to defund the CBC. It’s no wonder he’s taking aim at The Canadian Press. And it’s no wonder he wants to undermine the credibility of any journalist or media organization that refuses to cater to his fact-challenged brand of politics. By deliberately dumbing down the conversation and confusing Canadians about who and what they can trust, he’s trying to tilt the political table in his favour. The operative question now is whether Canadians are going to let him get away with it.
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