According to American intelligence services, the dissemination of fake news was one of the main methods employed by Russian intelligence to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. The aftermath of the election worried national governments worldwide, not just because of the notion that foreign actors had the ability to influence elections, but also the fact that they lacked solutions to counter their efforts. Canada is among one of the countries, as it is not only a close ally and neighbour of the United States, it also has an upcoming federal election next year. And even with warnings from the Ministry of National Defence that Canada should expect similar cyberattacks during its election year, the Canadian government can only take a reduced role in fighting fake news.
The Government and Fake News
In order for the Canadian government to address the problems associated with fake news effectively, it cannot proceed on its own. The government would violate its own democratic institutions by interfering with the media, as a free press is guaranteed by the Canadian constitution. Even if the disseminated information is misleading and potentially dangerous, the government will risk setting off the “backfire effect” by identifying it as fake news, as those who already trust them will see the government as an oppressor, especially when fake news are centered around sensitive topics like politics. According to briefing notes presented earlier this year to the office of Mélanie Joly, the-then Minister of Canadian Heritage, there is little the federal government can do to assist the media in fighting fake news, especially at a time where most media outlets are facing financial challenges.
Earlier this year, the leadership of News Media Canada, the largest association of media outlets in the country, had recommended the federal government to partner up with private media outlets and social media platforms in stopping fake news. However, recent news stories have also shown that there are potential conflicts of interest in partnering up with tech giants such as Facebook and Google. In the past, Google has consistently tried to cover up research that put the corporation in a bad light. Meanwhile, Facebook has also played a role in spreading fake news due to its involvement with Cambridge Analytica, as well as partnering with a Republican PR firm to discredit George Soros. This only leaves one option for the federal government if they are to partner up with other actors, to deliver additional funding to every major media outlet in the country, and to ensure that all Canadians have better access to a diverse news diet.
However, one advantage that Canada does have over the United States is that it has a well-funded public service broadcaster (PSB) in the CBC. Recent studies have shown that countries with popular PSBs tend to have more informed citizens and lower rates of right-wing extremism, even if they are apolitical.
The Political Climate in Canada
Even if the government were able to take the lead in curbing the spread of fake news, it will still be a difficult task due to the existing political factors in Canadian society.
As populism and political polarisation increases globally, not only has the spread of fake news become more frequent, but harder to refute. Although Canada is less politically divided relative to the US, Canada is also becoming more polarised. According to Elections Canada, Canadian voters are slowly moving towards the extreme ends of the political spectrum, both by party affiliation and voting record.
The Canadian media is also causing society to become more polarised due to indexing, a common North American media trend where news coverage tends to only relay the messaging of political elites. And as elites move further apart on the political spectrum, the same happens to public opinion as well. There is also little diversity in Canadian media ownership, meaning that most Canadians are only exposed to one perspective when consuming media.
Most Canadians also have trouble identifying fake news. According to a survey led by Ipsos and RTDNA Canada, only 37 percent of sampled Canadians were able to pass a quiz that directed them to accurately spot fake and real news.
As mentioned above, in a liberal democracy like Canada, the government and the media have to remain independent of each other. The federal government cannot introduce policies that directly identify and block fake news, but it can implement policies that would promote a more diverse media and improve political engagement, both factors would lead to the population becoming more informed and thus naturally stopping fake news.
The government has the ability to reallocate or increase funding to the CBC, giving the broadcaster more financial resources to work with, allowing it to produce content higher in quality. Better content could lead to greater engagement with its audience, and Canadians would be better informed.
Furthermore, the federal government can encourage provincial governments to include addressing fake news in the social studies classes of public schools. Implementing a curriculum that informs students on dealing with fake news is an effective way to minimise fake news, especially when these methods are taught to younger generations.
With introducing these policies, the government will face several challenges. As education is a provincial jurisdiction, the federal government can only pose recommendations or risk damaging intergovernmental relations. Furthermore, education may not be a priority on the agendas of most provinces. Another challenge is finding out the degree of effectiveness of the policies. While they will certainly improve media quality and political engagement in the long run, further quantitative work will be required to find out if they can combat fake news.
Stopping the spread of fake news in Canada is a difficult task for the government because it needs to remain a neutral bystander when dealing with the press. It will need to partner up with private and nongovernmental actors to tackle this problem, but this is also challenging because the most ideal actors that would help in stopping fake news, such as social media platforms, hold conflicts of interest. The only role the government can play in fighting fake news is to leverage its advantage of having a popular PSB plus encourage provincial governments to address fake news in its public school curricula.
Concurrently, when people trust news that are factually false, it is psychologically difficult to reverse their thinking. Canada also has a challenging media landscape as Canadian news coverage tends to amplify polarisation, and the lack of media ownership diversity exacerbates these issues. These are all challenges that policymakers will have to take into account when devising measures to combat fake news.
Above Photo: Former Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly during a question period in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press)