Social media gives a platform for anyone to share their stories and opinions. All one needs is an internet connection—there is no criteria for professional journalistic skills or ethics. However, with this freedom comes opportunity to publish literally anything — including fake news.
Fake news involves the dissemination of information that is intended to mislead or manipulate an audience. It is also known as disinformation. Fake news can influence public opinion or perception, or instill fear. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 71 per cent of Canadians worry about fake news being used as a weapon. It is so easy to spread fake news—so citizens need to be better protected from it.
It recently occurred to me how easily information can be transformed into disinformation. On World Cleanup Day on Sept. 21, I was photographing the many Montrealers who took to the streets to pick up garbage. My camera lens caught one of the participants, François Raymond, putting Justin Trudeau’s campaign poster into a garbage bag. Raymond was smiling as if he looked happy about throwing it away. The first thought I had was that his smile was linked to his political views. I assumed he did not like Trudeau.
However, after I approached him to verify my perception, he said his smile had nothing to do with his political views, he was just happy with the amount of trash he had collected so far.
It got me thinking that if my picture had been shared on social media without context or with the wrong caption, it would misrepresent Raymond’s actions of simply cleaning his city. For example, if it was published on a social media page affiliated with the NDP or Conservatives, the picture could give the impression that Canadians are not supporting the Liberal Party, and affect voter perception. And with 40 per cent of Canadians using Facebook as a news source, according to the Reuters 2019 Digital News Report, many people could be subject to this disinformation.
This type of situation isn’t unheard of in the mainstream media. In 2016, during a campaign in South Carolina, a photo of Hillary Clinton went viral. It depicted her tumbling on steps with aides helping Clinton get her balance. The photo was used in the alt-right news site Breitbart published it as a clue of Clinton’s deteriorating health from a previous brain injury. The Getty photographer Mark Makela was disappointed how his photo was misappropriated, in an interview with Wired.
With how easily fake news can be produced, social media companies cannot be depended upon to police themselves. Although Facebook Canada with Agence France-Presse (AFP) launched its third-party fact-checking program, this will not do enough to prevent disinformation on its platform, according to a new transparency report released by the U.K.-based fact-checking charity organization Full Fact. For example. they state government should be more involved in providing public information on subjects where harm can be done by disinformation.
I believe that using artificial intelligence to monitor social media on a daily basis will decrease fake news. Yet, Facebook’s fact-checking program is only a partial solution, since it’s impossible to combat the many fake news posts, often mixing opinions, conspiracies, and even facts, which can sometimes appear as real news.
More needs to be done, and I think it should start with legislation, as ultimately, the way people perceive fake news can completely change their views and potentially harm their lives. Law should be a method to protect users’ safety first and foremost, and to protect journalism as a profession, as it’s one of the main institutions aimed at keeping democracy in place.
In Canada, laws around the dissemination of fake news haven’t been very effective. Section 181 says “ Every one who wilfully publishes a statement, tale or news that he knows is false and that causes or is likely to cause injury or mischief to a public interest is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.” But in 1992, Canada’s Supreme Court deemed the offense unconstitutional as it the right to freedom of expression. And since the section is not legally effective, there is still a gap when it comes to fighting fake news in the country.
With the new big technology shift occurring, it broadens the chance to have misleading news and lies. To hold that back, new laws need to frequently be enacted on a case-by-case basis in order to suppress the harmful mistruths. I think fines should be imposed on those who repeatedly publish fake information. Ethical hackers can be used to track down perpetrators who are causing significant harm on people’s lives or reputations. This will still keep the flow of democracy without limiting people’s right to free speech.
Due to a national survey conducted by Nanos Research for the organization Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), More than 70 per cent of Canadians agree or somewhat agree that government regulation is needed to prevent the proliferation of fake news, while more than 60 per cent of Canadians think that the federal government is not transparent or somewhat not transparent when it comes to the information that is available about what governments do.”
In the meantime, all we can do is to think critically about everything we see or read, and be skeptical, especially on social media.
Graphic by @sundaeghost
Photos by Reham Al-Azem