The Monitor, January/February 2023

Arming ourselves in the fight against disinformation
January 5, 2023
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Disinformation, when practiced at scale, can fracture societies. It’s up to us to stop it.

Disinformation has been on journalists’ and experts’ minds a lot since around 2016, a watershed year that saw the passing of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States—both driven in large part by disinformation networks on social media. Those concerns exploded with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The World Health Organization calls it an “Infodemic,” a pandemic of misinformation and disinformation. That disinformation has taken on many forms. 

COVID-19, which has killed at least 6.6 million people worldwide, was described as being barely worse than a cold. Masks, which reduce the spread of the virus, were described as being ineffective. Vaccines against COVID-19, which have saved countless lives by reducing the severity of the disease, were described as more dangerous than the virus itself. 

These are, unfortunately, not fringe ideas. Nearly one in five Canadians believes that COVID-19 vaccines, which are safe and effective, have killed a large number of Canadians but that the true figures are being covered up by the government. 

Such beliefs are fueled by disinformation, which has found an active partner in America’s social media giants, particularly Facebook. On Facebook, one study found that COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation receives fully six times the engagement that factual information does. With over three quarters of the Canadian population on Facebook, the company’s failure to properly root out disinformation is a dangerous problem.

This issue of the Monitor digs deep into the roots of misinformation and disinformation in Canada, how to spot it, and how to arm ourselves so that we can fight the lies and propaganda—and protect the integrity of our democracy while we’re at it.

  • Disinformation: New tools, same poison: In his probing essay on the origins of modern-day disinformation tactics, Jon Milton writes: “Disinformation didn’t spring out of nowhere—it’s a tool the powerful use to protect themselves from accountability.” Milton takes you on a journey back to 1914, when the Rockefellers waged a disinformation campaign against striking coal miners, creating a “confusion factory.” Milton concludes: “From John D. Rockefeller to Donald Trump, disinformation has always been a tool the powerful use to protect themselves. The tactics may have changed, but the poison remains the same.”
  • Canada can’t be complacent about threats to our democracy: Supriya Dwivedi and Phaedra de Saint-Rome write: “There is no doubt that compared to other peer jurisdictions Canada has remained resilient in the face of mis/disinformation in the past. However, declining trust in mainstream media, American mis-/disinformation actors inserting themselves into Canadian political narratives, and examples of foreign interference underscore why past resilience should not make us complacent in addressing these growing threats to our democracy.” The authors warn readers not to take Canada’s democracy for granted and urge political leaders to do the work to protect ours. They point to countries like Finland, which takes disinformation seriously and educates its citizens so they are better prepared to tell fact from fiction.
  • They came to my city: Former Peterborough mayor Diane Therrien became a media sensation when she called the convoy protestors who’ve settled in her city “fuckwads” live on CBC radio. In her Monitor article, she reprises the term and warns that alt-right narratives endanger democracy.We wish more politicians were straight talkers like Therrien!
  • Progressive politics and the age of misinformation: Kofi Hope writes: “We’re living in an age of disruption, where once consistent trends in politics, economics and society are being challenged daily.   For progressives it can be extremely disorienting at times, as old orthodoxies about how progressive politics operates and who is part of our movement are shifting.” The Rhodes scholar concludes that there is no option but to tackle the rise and origins of misinformation head on.