Why Canadians need to take digital disinformation seriously
By flooding social media platforms with false information, it makes it harder to know what to believe, particularly for users with lower digital literacy skills, and it can have negative effects on people’s faith in their government and democratic systems
The article originally appeared in The Hill Times
By flooding social media platforms with false information, it makes it harder to know what to believe, particularly for users with lower digital literacy skills, and it can have negative effects on people’s faith in their government and democratic systems.
On March 20, rallies to protest COVID-19 restrictions were organized worldwide. Several of these so-called “freedom rallies” took place in Canada, including in Calgary, London, Victoria, and Vancouver. The previous weekend, thousands took to the streets in Montreal to protest lockdown measures that have been put in place by the Quebec government. Many held signs that indicated they had fallen for disinformation campaigns and wild conspiracy theories that have been circulating online since the start of the pandemic.
The pandemic has demonstrated the true cost of disinformation as we watch loved ones fall victim to health-related hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and influence operations meant to destroy our trust in democratic systems. It has also emphasized the significance of digital literacy for Canadians.
Online conspiracy theories have resulted in questionable offline behaviour by our fellow citizens. In Quebec, individuals have attempted to burn down cellphone towers due to the 5G conspiracy theory.
In October, members of Ontario’s provincial parliament were implicated in a conspiracy theory that the federal government is building internment camps to detain Canadians. A YouTube video featuring an MPP, Randy Hillier, making these claims has been viewed over 100,000 times and has been shared by larger conspiracy theory organizations like QAnon.
Melanie Smith from Graphika highlights that the real danger of QAnon and other conspiracy theory groups isn’t just that they spread outlandish claims, or that bots spread these messages widely, but that they serve as a “systematic undermining of facts and truths on topics of genuine concern, such as the integrity of elections, human trafficking, and the global COVID-19 pandemic.” By flooding social media platforms with false information, it makes it harder to know what to believe, particularly for users with lower digital literacy skills, and it can have negative effects on people’s faith in their government and democratic systems.
Facebook and YouTube recently took action against Quebec-based conspiracy theorist Alexis Cossette-Trudel’s channel, Radio-Quebec, for violating their guidelines on spreading COVID-19 misinformation, including messaging that the dangers of the pandemic were greatly exaggerated, and other QAnon-related messages. Such false narratives are particularly dangerous when spread by social media influencers like him, because they amass a large following both on and offline.
Equally worrying is the role authoritarian governments have played in implementing targeted disinformation campaigns ranging from false cures to alternative “sources” of the virus as a biological weapon.
Last spring, Chinese diplomats took to Twitter claiming that the virus originated in the U.S. and was brought to Wuhan by the military. A Canadian conspiracy website, Global Research, has also become a major outlet of Russian backed disinformation, with more than 100 articles on their website authored by Russian military intelligence.
Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s DisinfoWatch, a new platform for tracking and debunking COVID-19 and foreign disinformation claims, has compiled a list of these narratives, with the goal of raising awareness to disinformation and building societal resilience against these claims.
Speaking at the Canadian Coalition to Counter COVID Digital Disinformation’s first town hall, Marcus Kolga had the following to say: “the pandemic has created a fertile information environment for conspiracy theorists who have emerged from the shadows of the far left and the far right to exploit the uncertainty and the fear that the pandemic has created. Foreign actors and fringe media feed into these heightened emotions by legitimizing and amplifying conspiracies and other disinformation.”
While social media is an amazing tool for collaboration and information sharing, it has also made the sharing of false information, whether intentional or unintentionally shared, as easy as a click of a button.
Digital literacy and resiliency will be essential for Canadians in this digital era. As more people’s sole source of news comes from unregulated sources within social media platforms, public health agencies will need to step up their game to produce easily digestible and engaging content to spread the truths about health-related matters. The alternative is Canadians relying on easily accessible but not fact-checked information from less than reputable sources.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, former U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned that, “if we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.” It can be challenging to decipher fact from fiction, but it is crucial that Canadians heed Obama’s warnings and get more engaged, critical and reflective with the content they consume and share.
If we are unable to address this disinformation tsunami we are facing now, we will likely only see more social unrest and divisiveness in the future.
Kyle Matthews is executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. Lauren Salim is the project director of the Canadian Coalition to Counter Covid Digital Disinformation, an initiative of the institute.