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PeaceTalks: What does the relationship between democracy and disinformation mean for Canada's election?

“The point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” ― Garry Kasparov

A recent survey conducted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation found that 40% of respondents struggle to differentiate between real and false news stories. Many will recall the robocall scandal of the 2011 elections, directing Ontario voters to erroneous polling locations.

Meanwhile, Facebook Canada has refused to take down doctored content during the federal election campaign, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have ignored the subpoena to testify before the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy in Ottawa.

As we enter into a federal election season here in Canada, it raises the question of what role online media, propaganda, and disinformation will play. With many individuals increasingly aware of targeted ads, Facebook’s controversial data collection, and numerous other disinformation issues, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.

At the end of June, PeaceGeeks hosted our forty-first PeaceTalk, to discuss this topic and attempt to bring some clarity and insight into disinformation — and what it means for Canada’s elections this autumn. Our panel included John Gray, the Co-founder of Mentionmapp and Misinfosec Working Group (Lead Contributor) at Credibility Coalition, Lindsay Sample, the Managing Editor at The Discourse, and Chris Tenove, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia.

Chris Tenove began our talk with a short presentation on disinformation and what the term encompasses. For Chris the definition given by the European Union is the best, stating that disinformation is “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public and may cause public harm.” By contrast, misinformation is the unintentional sharing of misleading information.

Chris then divided disinformation into what he refers to as clear and fuzzy cases, explaining how this is still a “new universe” that is being discovered. Clear cases are the very obvious examples of manipulation such as false stories and claims, doctored images, bots, and fake accounts. Fuzzy cases are more difficult to identify, and encompass a wide range of topics such as distorted claims, hyper partisan or polarizing memes, online ads-leal but targeted, or leaks of private documents.

The issue with this extensive list is that it is not exhaustive, and we are still learning about the different forms disinformation can take. In an attempt to manage disinformation the Canadian government has implemented new election laws and large online platforms known to be heavily used prior to the campaign period have banned political ads until the writ is dropped.

Addressing such heavy topics can feel daunting, but despite this Lindsay Sample highlights the importance of journalism and the role journalists play in preventing mis/disinformation from spreading. Sample stated how fact checking alone isn’t going to change the game, it’s the first step but more facts aren’t going to solve polarization. She discussed how when we see certain topics, we are often responding with emotion, and therefore feeding facts to the issue will not always provide a solution or resolution. Instead, we have to learn how to actively engage in a meaningful way with people who disagree. The Discourse explores these different routes to engage in meaningful conversation.

The audience was left with an important thought to keep in mind, as individuals, communities and groups we can get worked up over a specific incident or event. This can divert our attention from other very important topics, that are less emotionally charged but can alter Canada’s political decisions. As we enter the elections period here in Canada, we must ensure that despite the  “big issues” we also pay attention to topics that are left on the back burner but important to how the elected party will make decisions for the next four years. 

As the evening came to a close, for many it left one big question: how do we engage with disinformation in a proactive way for the purpose of combating it?

Here’s where our forty-first PeaceTalk left off:

  • If you choose to engage, be prepared for all sides of the argument. There are a plethora of opinions and some may not align with you.
  • Do your research and make conscious decisions before reposting something.
  • Stay informed! If something seems questionable, look at reliable studies and garner a better understanding of the topic.
  • Don’t shy away from participating in conversations about disinformation! Actively engaging even with the idea of disinformation can help raise the awareness of misleading or false claims.
  • Ask questions when consuming media in all its various forms: does what I’m reading/seeing/hearing make sense? Does it seem like a fair claim? Is there evidence for the claim/statement being made?

For this PeaceTalk, we created a question wall and invited attendees to add their questions before, during, or after the talk. Some of the topics that popped up many times included: vulnerability to misinformation, social media's influence on elections (in Canada and in other countries), how we can learn from other countries’ successes, and potential solutions to mis/disinformation.

In order to give you the best responses, we’re compiling a ToolBox (with the help of our panelists) of some helpful resources to advocate for accuracy of information across the media. Below, you can find links to publications that were mentioned at the talk, as well as websites to help combat disinformation.

Information ToolBox:

Try out this game and test your disinformation skills!

Missed the talk? Watch it here.

Check out our awesome photos from the event here.

Follow our Panelists on Social Media:

This article was written by PeaceGeeks staff member Kate Morford.

Jul 23, 2019
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