As one more election campaign winds down and Canadians prepare to head to the polls, I’m struck by the amount of misinformation I’ve seen float around and been passed off as factual news.
Just this past week alone, I saw an alarming number of people share an unsubstantiated story about Justin Trudeau published by The Buffalo Chronicle, a fake news site that has been rated as questionable by media fact-checkers for its far-right-wing bias and a complete lack of transparency. The site discloses neither ownership nor editor and its writers lack biographical information. And yet people shared the article like it had provided them with undisputed and completely verifiable bombshell revelations about Trudeau’s wrongdoings, never questioning (or unwilling to question) the source. Confirmation bias in full display.
Faux news sites True North and Rebel News “reporters” being allowed to cover the federal leaders debates and ask nonsense questions based on conspiracy theories last week was the moment when I concluded we needed to attack the root of the problem and not simply attempt to contain it once the poison has started spreading.
Here’s the deal: there’s no quality control when it comes to votes and everyone’s choice carries equal weight. Which, if I must be perfectly honest here, makes me downright nervous when I look at how gullible and easily manipulated people can sometimes be. But, like Winston Churchill whimsically stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
I’m not here to pretentiously claim that I can easily evaluate media sources in a split second while the rest of you have the wool pulled over your eyes. I’m here to tell you the opposite. Sometimes it’s damn hard to discern how and why certain news sources aren’t reliable and if we don’t fix our media illiteracy problem, we’re priming ourselves for problematic decision-making by a misled and badly informed public.
It’s frankly time we started teaching media literacy and social media literacy as essential and mandatory tools for navigating civic life – both in school and afterwards. Why are we sending people off to vote for tomorrow’s leaders and the public policies we’ll implement without ensuring in them some basic ability to cross-reference, spot a fake Facebook post, think critically about dubiously labelled “experts” and question anything shared without a clear and credible source?
Fake news is, of course, nothing new and credible news sources have responded to its proliferation online by hiring journalists whose only job is to conduct extensive research and dispel this disinformation. Not only do they quickly call out lies, they often explain who started spreading it, how it spread, the social media platforms often to blame for helping it spread, and who the intended audiences are. Outright lies are sharing space with facts in our media landscape and it can be very hard for the average media consumer who may not be equipped to assess and judge the quality of information they are exposed to, to understand why one is credible and one is suspect.
Looking at the frequency and blind conviction with which my friends and relatives often share fake news, I’m convinced that there has never been a better time to teach media literacy than right now. It’s not hyperbole to state that I’m worried about the state of our democracy and the ramifications to the integrity of our voting system if this rampant and unchecked disinformation simply continues to spread.
Social media has, in many ways, democratized the ability to influence, opine and make information mainstream and global. Allowing other voices has been a welcome addition to our echo chambers and has enabled marginalized voices to be heard, while allowing them to challenge more traditional, established sources and aggregators and supporters of the status quo. This is good for social evolution and social justice.
But online digital technology has also enabled content creators and platforms to disseminate the most irresponsible content and help propagate deeply harmful messages, like hate speech and political propaganda. Social media platforms are routinely the most responsible for spreading misinformation, and the least likely to want to do something about it.
Without the ability to properly assess content and without the critical frameworks that allow a media consumer to judge the credibility and veracity of shared information via fact-checking and cross referencing, the ability to determine whether something should be shared as accurate and factual can be badly compromised.
Media messages shape our perceptions of reality, and when we unwittingly share lies, we run the risk of creating a reality that will not serve us well. It’s bad enough that media consolidation has created real issues for democracy and the dissemination of unbiased and fair news, the disinformation crisis threatens to escalate the problem further.
As a society, we have lengthy conversations about freedom of speech, often disingenuous ones spurred on by conservative pundits who think the ability to no longer be able to say racist, sexist or derogatory things with no consequence equates censorship. We often talk about net neutrality and better regulation of media platforms, and about the media’s responsibility to ensure fair and unbiased reporting, but what about the responsibility of media audiences to be responsible and educated consumers of news? Why shouldn’t the onus be on us, too?
Ancient Greeks used to consider anyone who didn’t participate in political or public arenas an “idiot.” The word stems from the definition of “private” and refers to citizens who keep to themselves, are separated from the whole and generally do not participate in politics. There can be no democracy without a vote-based system of democracy. Ancient Greeks knew that and valued active civic participation. To choose to abstain from such an important duty would be considered foolish and irresponsible; hence the modern-day definition of “idiot.”
But in today’s media landscape littered with disinformation, propaganda and foreign election interference, it’s not enough to merely vote. One must be able to cast a vote in an educated and responsible manner, free of undue influence from dubious sources, fake news outlets and unscrupulous campaign managers.
As the attacks against candidates multiply and the political discourse becomes uglier and more underhanded, the voting public runs an increasingly larger risk of becoming more polarized, manipulated and misinformed. Media literacy is needed now more than ever. ■