Fake news and social media create challenges for democracy

Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the U.S. media has published endless stories about fake news and ways technology has threatened democracy.


Many of the tactics described in these reports centered around the proliferation of fake news reports on social media, targeted advertising on social media by third party organizations, and the use of autonomous social media bot accounts to amplify divisive rhetoric online.

However, in Canada the debate about these potential threats has been much more muted.


Does legislation help?

In an effort to limit foreign interference and the influence of political action committees, the Liberal party passed legislation in 2018 to help combat these potential threats to the integrity of Canada’s electoral system.


The legislation solidified rules limiting political advertising prior to the election period. It also forced political advertisers on social media to register their activities with Elections Canada.


“We’ve developed standards and norms for broadcasting, for radio, and for print media. What are some of those norms and standards that we should be thinking about when it comes to the online world?” said then federal Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould, in an interview with CTV’s Power Play in May.


“What we’ve seen at the federal level in Canada, is that the Liberal party was pretty willing to jump in and legislate and regulate around these kinds of issues,” said Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.


Fears of interference

In the buildup to the federal election, there were rumblings about whether foreign governments would deploy similar tactics to interfere.


According to Young, one of the more interesting developments from the federal election is that much of the social media interference came from an unexpected source.


“A lot of the intervention we saw actually came out of the United States,” said Young.


As an example, she pointed to a specific instance where a U.S.-based news website called The Buffalo Chronicle,a site known for publishing journalistically problematic content, started publishing unverified stories about Justin Trudeau having an affair while he was a teacher at the West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver.


“It really did spread very quickly and Facebook to the best of my knowledge didn’t take it down,” said Young.


The problem with this type of activity on social media is it becomes difficult over time for the population to properly distinguish between information and fake news.


Personal responsibility

Young believes people who are careful about what media they consume and double check news stories on reputable sites will be fine, “but people who want to believe misinformation, won’t go looking.”


Young believes it’s important for people to verify news with multiple reputable news organizations, and refuse to share content that can’t be verified.


She also suggests paying for a subscription to journalistic publications if you can afford it, “because there’s established journalistic practices that verify information is correct.”


Young also believes that social media companies need to be held accountable for content on their platforms.


“I think we need to exert pressure as consumers on these various platforms to make sure that they act as responsible publishers of information,” said Young.


While social media has a tremendous potential to distort people’s perceptions, some have been pushing back against the Liberal government’s changes.


In March, Google made headlines because the company banned political advertising from its platforms ahead of the federal election, because they found the changes to be too onerous.


This fall, advocacy groups also launched a challenge to recent amendments made to section 91 of the Canada Elections Act, specifically making the dissemination of false political statements punishable by jail time or fines.


This intersection of democracy, business, and advocacy highlight just how complicated this new political world can be.


In a game with such high stakes, Young is fearful groups may start to politicize the regulation of these activities.


“I think we’re in trouble if we start thinking of this as a partisan issue, I think that’s what’s come to happen in the United States and I don’t think we want to go down that road,” said Young.

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