OTTAWA — Samantha Reusch is aiming to help young Canadians identify misinformation online because she and her colleagues can’t monitor all social media platforms for false information during this fall’s campaign.
Reusch is the research manager at Apathy is Boring, a non-profit organization that encourages youth to engage in politics. She says misinformation on social media can be a barrier between young Canadians and political participation.
In the coming weeks, the group — along with some 400 other organizations and individuals — will launch a media literacy campaign of sorts, focusing on helping young voters identify misinformation and suspicious sources online.
Teaching young how to turn of the auto-play feature on YouTube, or use a reverse-image search on Google are examples of what the campaign will promote. There will also be a focus on the effect algorithms play in deciding what social media users with different values, backgrounds or demographics see in their feeds.
Reusch said her group wants young voters “to think critically about what they’re seeing online and why it might be spreading.
“If they see a story that makes them feel very strongly, … there might be someone who wants to elicit that response in us,” she said.
“Step back, and then check the source.”
The push — among many this election season — stems from concerns that deliberate misinformation campaigns, fomented by nefarious foreign actors or social media trolls, could have an effect on this fall’s federal election, fuelled by findings of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The federal government has set up a team of top civil servants who will monitor the election for foreign interference and alert the public if necessary. Parties have also been given secret briefings on how to protect themselves and their candidates from online misinformation.
Groups like Apathy is Boring are going to individual users.
The organization and its partners are planning a week of events starting on Sept. 8 and leading up to Sep. 15, the UN’s International Day of Democracy.
Reusch said the plan is to use popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to publish materials about identifying misinformation, send teams to concerts and festivals to talk with young people about how they consume news on social media, and bring young people around a table to talk with their friends about misinformation, news and the federal election.
Misinformation relies on eliciting an evocative emotional response, which helps fuel its spread on social media because users “engage with it by clicking or commenting on it,” said Reusch. Algorithms push the content to the top of feeds because of the high engagement rates, she said.
Reusch said students don’t learn enough about these issues in school, necessitating the awareness campaign.
“Civic education is not consistent across Canada. Provinces have varying degrees of civic curriculum in a high school level or elementary school level,” she said.
Understanding how social media work is a crucial and important part of a systematic response to misinformation, said Elizabeth Dubois, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Ottawa. But first, the country needs a better idea of how widespread of an issue misinformation is, she said.
Researchers with the Public Policy Forum and the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal are aiming to do just this fall. Their Digital Democracy Project will track how news and information is shared and digested leading up to the Oct. 21 vote.
The project team’s first report noted that the overall level of misinformation in Canada “appears to be quite low,” but that people are more likely to get the facts wrong and be misinformed about a particular topic or issue the more they consume news.
Dubois said political parties, government and third-party organizations, including news outlets and non-governmental organizations, should help raise awareness around how news media is produced and shared, and how digital technologies function. She also said online platforms need to make sure their systems don’t incentivize malicious content that could be detrimental in the election.
But identifying misleading content can be very difficult, said Dubois, whose research focuses on political use of digital media.
“It’s very, very challenging to identify what constitutes disinformation, and what constitutes satire or personal opinion,” she said.
“Legitimate political speech comes in a bunch of different forms.”
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press