I. Trust in content:
Countering fake news online
In the early days of the internet, when everyday citizens began accessing websites and email, online content was new, exciting and interesting. But, what online content wasn’t, was trusted.
Anyone who went to university in the late 1990s or early 2000s will remember that universities rarely accepted online sources as these had not gone through the fact-checking of a peer review. Students of the time relied on tried and true methods of research, primarily found in a library. The online world was new and most people were not yet comfortable with its content.
Fast forward 20 years, and online content permeates the schools, workplaces and living rooms of nearly all Canadians. Readership of trusted sources of the past including newspapers, which have their own journalistic standards, are on the decline as eyeballs turn to the internet. In fact, academic research papers, respected newspapers and magazines, and many other sources of news and information are now accessed easily online alongside content without the same stringent editorial review processes.
According to Canada’s Internet Factbook 20182, 55 per cent of Canadian internet users access news and current events via the internet. Whether via subscription or otherwise, Canadians now get their news online.
When thinking about the pervasiveness of online content and news – in sharing it and accessing it – one cannot ignore the rising concern among Canadians about fake news, or fabricated news stories that grossly misrepresent actual events. On this front, three quarters of Canadian internet users say they at least sometimes encounter fake news online, and the majority agree that it’s a problem.
Percentage of respondents that agree the spread of fake news on social media is a problem
Questions around the influence of fake news on the 2016 U.S. presidential election highlight the growing need to analyze the power and prevalence of fake news. Fake news takes many forms, and can include wholly inaccurate content, news that misrepresents facts or is biased, and old stories passing as current news. It can also include echo chambers, whereby social media sites serve users imbalanced content, largely through algorithms based on their past online behavior, confirming and supporting views the user already holds or leans toward.
The lessons learned south of the border have encouraged 70 per cent of Canadian’s surveyed to express concern that fake news could impact the outcome of the next Canadian federal election. The urgency in this case is clear.
Level of concern that fake news could impact the next Canadian federal election
- Not concerned
- Unsure / Neutral
Social media and spreading misinformation online
Where does fake news flourish and how is it spread? To many, the answer lies in social media platforms.
CIRA’s research indicates that 80 per cent of social media users read or listen to news items shared by others and about a third share news items with others via social media. Given that nearly 70 per cent of internet users in Canada say they access a social media site almost every day, this is worth reflection.
Consider as well that while eight in ten Canadians are confident in their ability to recognize fake news stories online, just one quarter are very confident. Of greater concern, over half of Canadians admit they’ve been taken in by a fake news item.
Percentage of respondents who believed what they later found out to be fake news
Stopping the spread of fake news: the role of government, social media companies and the media
If you ask Canadian internet users, they see the responsibility to stop the spread of fake news split between social media companies, the press, the federal government and citizens themselves.
Responsibility to stop the spread of fake news
- Social media companies
- Citizens themselves
- Federal government
- Other/don’t know
When asked which of these should have the responsibility in monitoring and removing fake news from their platform, 91 per cent say social media should have at least some responsibility and nearly half of Canadians say these companies should have complete responsibility.
Social media companies, including Facebook, have begun to react. In April, 2018, Facebook published a blog3 outlining the “70 Facebook and 65 Instagram accounts – as well as 138 Facebook Pages – that were controlled by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency,” that were removed to counteract the spread of fake news on their platform.
At the DLD conference in January 2019, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg shared five things Facebook would do in 20194 to counter fake news. Two questions remain though. Is this action enough? Moreover, is it too little too late?
A majority (79 per cent) of Canadians want the federal government to impose fines or other sanctions on social media companies that do not act to remove fake news from their platforms. To date, the Canadian government has not taken such drastic action. In advance of the upcoming federal election, the Government of Canada has announced a five-member panel of senior bureaucrats that will analyze threats and inform political parties and the public of those threats.5
With or without government intervention, social media companies have a responsibility to stop the spread of fake news. However, given the speed with which news travels online, social media companies cannot stop fake news alone. In addition to the government and social media companies, Canadians also see traditional media and journalists as catalysts to stop misinformation from spreading online.
While most Canadians are at least somewhat confident that the information they access through major newspapers, TV news networks and radio stations in Canada is generally fair and accurate, few say the same of video hosting websites, podcasts and social media/messaging apps.
Confidence that news/information is generally fair and accurate
Given that trust exists in more traditional media sources, Canadian journalists can help thwart fake news online. Whether through fact-checking or countering false information spreading online, journalists are in a position to make a positive impact. However, with a shrinking traditional media landscape whereby roughly one-third of journalism jobs have been lost in the past six years6, how long can Canadians rely on this valuable source of information?
Individual Canadians can stop the influence of fake news
What are the responsibilities of citizens themselves? Canadians are alert to the possibility of fake news online, but how can they be sure when they encounter it?
Digital and media literacy are important for all Canadians to better navigate the online world – and Canadian internet users agree.
- agree that Canada’s public schools should place more of a focus on digital literacy for students.
- agree that Canada’s public schools should place more of a focus on media literacy for students.
Canada is investing in digital literacy. For example, the federal CanCode program invested over $50 million to support initiatives providing educational opportunities for coding and digital skills for Canadian youth from kindergarten to grade 12 7.
As well, the Canadian government announced $7 million in funding this past January to fight the spread of fake news online. The funding will be split between organizations conducting digital literacy programs to help voters better assess online information and groups working to increase understanding of disinformation8.
Both Facebook and Google are also funding similar support initiatives, with Google giving $500,000 to the Canadian Journalism Foundation and Civix to teach students to recognize fake news online9. Facebook has also launched a “digital news literacy campaign” with the digital and media literacy organization MediaSmarts10.
Organizations like CIRA are investing in this important value-add as well. Like Facebook, CIRA supports MediaSmarts. CIRA recently provided over $80,000 to MediaSmarts to carry out qualitative research for Phase IV of Young Canadians in the Wired World, which tracks and investigates the behaviours, attitudes and opinions of Canadian children and youth with respect to their use of the internet. This research will provide the foundation and direction for the quantitative classroom- based research instruments for a national survey to follow. Considering how many Canadian adults have been taken in by fake news, arming children with media literacy skills early on is important.
With only a quarter of Canadians fully confident they can recognize fake news online, these investments – both time and money – are much needed.