Fighting disinformation in Canada
A new initiative from Journalists for Human Rights aims to train journalists to recognize and help counter disinformation, misinformation and malinformation online, and help protect our democracy.
Journalist and disinformation expert Craig Silverman leads Journalists for Human Rights’ course Fighting Disinformation Through Strengthened Media and Citizen Awareness.
It’s 10 a.m., in the depths of Canadian winter, and we’re in a classroom at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto. A group of top journalists from across Canada are peering at a screen. Craig Silverman, a journalist and expert on misinformation, disinformation and media manipulation, is directing our attention to a slide. It features a photograph of the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge within a Facebook ad.
This is an example of deliberate disinformation. An unscrupulous vendor used Mansbridge’s image to sell erectile dysfunction medication. “Mansbridge never consented to this, but the vendor used his image to sell millions of dollars in product,” says Silverman.
The journalists in the room look at one another. Advertisers working in traditional media could never have gotten away with such a scheme: the fear of litigation for deliberately sharing inaccurate information would be too high. Yet online, via social media, says Silverman, “it’s the wild west.” No fear of lawsuit, because who would Mansbridge or an aggrieved party sue? The identities of the person setting up the page and the individual who owns the domain from which the page was created are concealed. And in what court would you sue them? Their location is unknown.
A broad variety of actors have conspired, knowingly or unknowingly, to create and profit, financially or politically, from a fog of false facts online.
For the next two days, Silverman took the journalists on a merry trip through the darker and slipperier corners of the internet. He outlined the distinction between misinformation (information that mis-states facts, but does so apparently without intent to harm); disinformation (information that deliberately confuses or obfuscates facts, known in a pre-internet era as propaganda); and malinformation (information, such as the hack of John Podesta’s emails during the 2016 election campaign in the U.S., that an actor has deliberately used to attack an individual or entity, usually for political ends). And he shared eye-popping case studies, such as the Mansbridge example, of the ways in which a broad variety of actors have conspired, knowingly or unknowingly, to create and profit, financially or politically, from a fog of false facts online.
The journalists came away from the training with an array of tools and techniques for monitoring and exposing how disinformation and misinformation spread online. They will use these techniques to each train 30 other journalists on these strategies. In so doing, or so our theory of change goes, they will debunk deliberate disinformation campaigns and replace them with truth and facts to thrive online.
Such is the opening salvo of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR)’s latest initiative, Fighting Disinformation through Strengthened Media and Citizen Preparedness. Funded by Canadian Heritage, it’s a project that engages journalists and citizens in ways to help people more clearly understand and hence combat disinformation, misinformation and malinformation, while exposing how these techniques are used to deliberately manipulate public opinion on social media. Says Silverman: “Canadian journalists play an essential role in stopping false and misleading information from taking hold. I’m working with JHR to train journalists in newsrooms big and small in order to help them spot disinformation, understand how social media can be manipulated, and use their skills to create a more informed public.”
Also engaged on the project is media literacy expert Taylor Gunn and his organization CIVIX, which has been consulting with experts around the world to build digital literacy tools for educators for two years. “These have been successful in schools, but the habits and skills of informed citizenship apply to everyone,” says Gunn.
The project got its start in January 2019, when JHR sponsored Filipino journalist, disinformation expert and press freedom icon Maria Ressa to come to Toronto for Ryerson’s Democracy Xchange conference, coordinated with the Ryerson Leadership Lab.
Social media platforms are not clearing the misinformation sludge out of our feeds. As a result, we’re living in this sea of lies online.
“Disinformation and misinformation are like sludge in the system,” Ressa explained. “Unfortunately, social media platforms are not taking on the responsibility of clearing that sludge out of our feeds. As a result, we’re living in this sea of lies online.” She showed us, using graphic mapping technology, how public opinion through the Philippine election in 2016 was manipulated by 25 Facebook accounts all pumping out millions of posts on the drug war in that country. The goal: to promote a sense of impending fear, whether or not it was grounded in anything approximating reality, and to proffer the candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte as a solution to this supposedly imminent threat. Duterte was elected, and Ressa and her journalists at Rappler.com have since worked to expose gross human rights abuses committed by his government in the name of the drug war in his country. Since then she has also been fighting “cyberbullying” libel cases put forward by Duterte and his supporters; cases that, if upheld, would result in 20+ years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
Listening to Ressa, it was as though someone took off the blinders. In 1960s and 1970s sub-Saharan Africa, the way to take over a country was to secure the airwaves. Once a would-be despot had control of the country’s radio and TV networks, they had control of everything else. In 2016, would-be authoritarian leaders took over our minds instead. They achieved this through fake accounts posting false information millions of times, manipulating the information we receive on social media and distorting our sense of reality. As Ressa put it, “A lie told a million times becomes the truth.” In such a light, the strange explosion of authoritarian leaders elected through democratic means—including Duterte, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States—starts to make more sense.
Last year Canada faced an election in which intelligence services had evidence that similar kinds of misinformation and disinformation attacks threatened to compromise its integrity. Luckily, one of the people listening to Maria Ressa at the Democracy Xchange conference was then-Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould. She wasted no time. Working with Canadian Heritage, the Liberal government has since made a series of policy decisions and funded an array of projects designed to maintain the integrity of our social media space while giving Canadian citizens the tools they need to separate fact from fiction online, including this initiative.
The JHR project will teach credible working journalists and community leaders useful skills to identify and track misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. They will deploy these skills in their work and teach them to an average of 30 peers each across Canada. Community leaders will share these techniques as part of helping citizens become more critical consumers of online content. All training materials will be shared via the online platform to all interested parties. Journalists and media literacy experts were consulted in and led the development of the curriculum, and the tools adopted through the training are useful techniques for monitoring how stories are unfolding online, while watching for disinformation attacks. JHR has also set up a website page to archive project curricula and outcomes.
Enthusiasm back in the classroom at RSJ ran high. Participants provided extensive feedback on the training materials and brainstormed ways to adapt them to the variety of contexts that the 10 journalists would be working with. Said Bill Fortier of CTV Edmonton: “I love this idea. Timely — and important.”
That’s precisely what we at JHR thought.