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Don’t believe everything you see on social media, especially when it comes to athletes.

Social media has evolved into an array of platforms where people cannot know for sure if they are seeing the truth. Many users spin a big situation differently to make it fit their own narratives, and, like most societal problems, it finds its way into the sports world.

Athletes are always under the spotlight with so many people paying close attention to their lives. When something big happens to an athlete, hordes of people take to the keyboards to give their two cents. The biggest consequence is that a lot of unverified information and claims appear on an easily accessible public forum, and they can be misinterpreted by other users.

The most recent case of spreading misinformation is the discussion surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine and its possible effects on different athletes. A very glaring instance of this occurred in January 2023, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed on the field during an NFL game. 

Before doctors confirmed that a rare cardiac condition called commotio cordis had affected Hamlin, the public was delving into conspiracy. As National Public Radio’s Lisa Hagen reported after the incident, while fans were scrambling to learn the cause, “…on the internet, anti-vaccine activists filled in the silence with unfounded theories that Hamlin’s collapse was brought on by COVID vaccines.”

The social media discussion became so loud and turbulent that the player’s health seemed to take a back seat, which is rather ironic. In fact, someone even went as far as altering the headline of a CNN article in a screenshot to make people believe that a doctor determined the cause to be a COVID-19 booster shot. Everybody and their mother had something to say about the incident. 

Ten days after the false rumour circulation, USA Today felt the need to publish an article clarifying that there was no evidence that Hamlin’s condition was caused by the vaccine. “Doctors said a connection is highly unlikely given the list of cardiac issues that have long been observed as causing such incidents of cardiac arrest in athletes,” the article reads.

Hamlin was resuscitated on the field, and has now returned to playing football after recovering fully. But this incident remains a reminder of how important it is that people independently verify the information they read, especially on a public forum where anyone can say anything that’s on their mind.

More recently, Bronny James (son of NBA star LeBron James) went into cardiac arrest during a workout at the University of Southern California. When Elon Musk took to Twitter (now called X) and implied that the COVID-19 vaccine must have been partially or completely at fault for the incident, many impressionable people have believed it. Once again, it is more likely that James’ cardiac arrest was exercise-induced, since it is not an uncommon problem in teenage and young adult men.

So, the next time you read an outlandish claim, make sure you double-check its sources.

Hear me out Opinions

Hear Me Out: With the rise of fake news, has the public lost faith in journalism?

With more people getting their news from social media, journalists are at risk of losing credibility

In 2020, former US President Donald Trump was accused of influencing an insurrection at Capitol Hill by allegedly spreading false information that the presidential election was stolen.

Thousands of people showed up to riot and hundreds stormed the building. Although Trump was acquitted of all charges of inciting the insurrection, journalists were left to clean up the mess by having to prove the reality of what took place that day. 

Being a journalist during the modern era of social media comes with many challenges, but the main issue is the growing concern of fake news. With more and more people getting their news from social media, the credibility of journalists is at stake. 

According to a survey conducted by polling group Maru Public Opinion, 26 per cent of Canadians aged 18-54 get their daily news from social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, while 23 per cent of Canadians aged 18-34 get their news from Twitter, and 20 per cent consume news through TikTok.

Additionally, with the rapid rise of TikTok, this has led to more users getting their news from other social media platforms rather than through traditional mediums such as television, print or radio.

Journalists have more work to do now because after having done the research, interviews, and gathering facts, there are still people who won’t believe them because of their personal or political biases.

Pew Research Center concluded that 65 per cent of Republicans trust Fox News as a legitimate source, while 39 per cent of them distrust CNN. Meanwhile, 67 per cent of Democratic-leaning people polled trust CNN as a news source.

According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, 59 per cent of people believe “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” Additionally, 59 per cent of people also believe “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position rather than informing the public.” 

With so much mistrust between the public and journalists, it’s easier to spread fake news and conspiracies because the regulations on social media to fight against propaganda and misinformation aren’t strong enough to stop it all.

Leaked documents cited by the New York Times showed that on Facebook, views of posts stating that the 2020 US presidential election was fraudulent made up 10 per cent of the views of all political content on the site. However, Facebook didn’t take steps to reduce the spread of this misinformation, fearing backlash. 

This means that Facebook was aware of fake news being spread at an alarming rate, but did nothing to stop it and two months later, an insurrection occurred.

Throughout Trump’s presidential campaigns and time in office, he targeted anyone who disagreed with him, including journalists, and he did this at campaign rallies, on TV, at White House conferences, and most importantly on Twitter. 

Trump was officially banned on Twitter in 2021 because he violated the site’s policy against the glorification of violence, but the damage had already been done. 

With the ownership of Twitter recently falling into Elon Musk’s hands, the site now allows anyone willing to pay a monthly fee to be verified with the famous blue checkmark. Musk tweeted that “widespread verification will democratize journalism & empower the voice of the people.” This isn’t true. In fact, he has given power to the people who want to spread propaganda, fake news, and conspiracy theories because he allows anyone to have a blue checkmark as long as they pay a monthly fee of $7.99. 

Musk responded to all the controversy of the new policy saying that Twitter will suspend any accounts attempting impersonations. However, with the massive layoffs that took place recently, I’m doubtful that Twitter will be able to monitor every fake account that pops up. 

Over the course of the pandemic, it was difficult to decipher fact from fiction about COVID-19, especially on social media. According to Pew Research Center, 48 per cent of American adults were exposed to false information about COVID-19, which could’ve delayed people from taking the virus seriously. 

If you watch the news, there aren’t many stories or segments where journalists, anchors or reporters debunk lies and misinformation. If journalists and news networks were more direct when reporting on fake news, perhaps it would change a viewer’s perspective because they are considering new information that they hadn’t heard before. 

I think that fake news can be reduced if journalists use social media to their advantage and report on misinformation on a weekly basis. If journalists want to earn the trust of the public, they have to be willing to call out people in high positions of power and public figures who feed into the conspiracies, lies and propaganda.

Media literacy is the new alphabet: why everyone needs to know how to read the news

Disinformation circulating on social media can now be the difference between illness and health.

To the untrained eye, a video of Stella Immanuel, an American doctor, appears completely legitimate. Immanuel, while wearing her white coat and standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, says she knows how to prevent further COVID-19 deaths. With a line of other people wearing white lab coats behind her, she assures that the virus has a cure: hydroxychloroquine.

The claim spread quickly across social platforms, garnering millions of views after being shared by Donald Trump and one of his sons. Both Facebook and Twitter quickly removed the video for violating their misinformation policies, and the Centers for Disease Control debunked the doctor’s claims. But for millions, the damage had already been done — the seed of misinformation had been sown.

Media literacy, or more specifically a lack thereof, could prove to be one of the biggest threats posed by social media. As displayed by viral claims that attempt to downplay the virus’s severity and unfounded theories for potential cures, the threat extends beyond the practice, and to society as a whole.

Facebook and other social media platforms have upped their misinformation policies as a response to the pandemic and the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Twitter has implemented a label beneath tweets that present disputed election claims, warning the viewer of such.  They’ve also begun completely removing some tweets with false information, as they did for the Immanuel video. Facebook has also started flagging posts as misleading or inaccurate, though its implementation has drawn a mixed reaction.

As the World Health Organization deems it, the problem this “infodemic” presents is obvious; the solution, on the other hand, remains in question. While the steps taken by Twitter and Facebook are a good start, more needs to be done to help individuals struggling to navigate the modern media landscape. I believe that media literacy courses should be required for all Canadians at the high school level, in order to reduce the spread of misinformation, and improve social media as a news-sharing platform.

Per a Ryerson University study, 94 per cent of online Canadians use social media. More than half of those users reported having come across some form of misinformation. A McGill University study found that the more a user relied on social media for news related to the pandemic, the more likely they were to defy public health guidelines. The inverse is equally true: the more a person relies on traditional news media for pandemic information, the more likely they were to follow the guidelines. A similar study at Carleton University found that almost half of Canadians surveyed believe at least one Corona virus conspiracy theory, with more than 25 per cent believing the virus was engineered in China as a weapon.

There are media studies courses that focus on the influences that advertising, propaganda and even cinema can have on consumers. But in the digital ecosystem that we currently find ourselves in, it has become essential to realize why misinformation exists on social media, and who benefits from it. Yet, students are never taught how to use these platforms properly.

In April, the Canadian government invested $3 million in order to help fight against virus-related misinformation. The money will be divided among several programs with the aim of “helping Canadians become more resilient and think critically.” As recently as late October, the federal government launched a program in collaboration with MediaSmarts to benefit Media Literacy Week in 2020, 2021, and 2022.

This plan, while well-intentioned, is reactive rather than proactive. Viewing misinformation related to the pandemic as a blip rather than the new normal is potentially very dangerous.

Last year in the U.S., a federal bill was introduced calling for $20 million of investment in media literacy education. Since then, 15 states have introduced media literacy bills, which aim to add media literacy as a part of the required high school curriculum. Beyond more consistent and clear messaging from all levels of government, experts prescribe some level of training required for students. Right now, social media users are left to use the formative platforms without the proper equipment; they are placed in a sea of information without a life raft.

In order to remedy its problem with misinformation, it will be essential for Canadian students to be instructed in media literacy by the time they graduate from high school. This baseline education, coupled with the advocacy we continue to see from groups such as MediaSmarts, creates a more educated media-consuming population. In the midst of this pandemic, it is media literacy, even more than epidemiology or politics, that could prove to be the greatest life-saver.


Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab


Fake news is a meme that should die

“Fake news”—that awful, awful term is a meme that has hit its mark, proven its fitness, and is gaining traction due to misunderstanding, division and lulz that we are all guilty of spouting. We are feeding it every time we utter it.

And we should just stop using it.

Fake news generally refers to information that is false or misleading, often sensational, and masked as news. It is a term that is shouted, spouted, typed and copy-pasted a great deal. It’s even associated with a specific voice in my head—can you guess whose?

Now, when I refer to “fake news” as a “meme,” I don’t mean those tacky time-wasters we should all ignore on the internet. I’m writing about the original definition of meme as coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.

The book itself presents the view that the gene is the agent of evolution (as opposed to the individual or the group). In the last chapter, Dawkins explores the idea of a unit of cultural evolution that works kind of similarly, though also differently. The meme, as he named it, is an idea, behaviour or style that exists in human minds and persists because of its sticking power and ability to spread. “Smoking is cool” is a meme that receives help from nicotine and the tobacco industry.

To be clear, internet memes aren’t quite the same. As Dawkins put it in a speech at Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase 2013 in Cannes in 2013, “instead of mutating by random chance and spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, they are altered deliberately by human creativity.” Internet memes are mere playthings for humans, and while real memes are created by humans, they evolve naturally.

Fake news is a meme in the original sense, and a strong one at that. It survives because it’s based on truth: false news is a real problem. It thrives by latching on to our fear of being lied to, the belief that people of opposing views are more likely to spread or believe lies—our fear of journalism’s demise, and the mix of humour and outrage we feel when Donald Trump uses it as a slur.

Sure, disinformation has always existed and will always exist—much like the people generating it, believing it and the journalists fighting against it. It’s a never-ending struggle. But this fake news business has gotten out of hand. It doesn’t simply exist to refer to disinformation in one form or another anymore.

The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News were among the first to use the term in October 2016 to describe how false news articles on Facebook had influenced the US elections. That put the seed in people’s minds. Then, President Trump threw an all-caps FN-bomb at CNN on Twitter in December of that year, which was the water that nurtured the meme’s growth.

Columnist Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post actually warned us a couple of weeks later, calling the term a label that has been “co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”

To my liberal friends, stop using it ironically. To my conservative friends, stop using it so angrily. To my journalistic friends, stop using the term entirely. After this article, I will also stop using it. That’s the only way to kill a meme. Because we’re not really using it. It’s using us. Stop saying it. Stop writing it. Let it die.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


How can we save journalism?

Journalism is facing a crisis on many fronts.

The business model based on advertising revenues is no longer sustainable and journalism layoffs are at their highest level since the last recession. Some political leaders are in a campaign against the mainstream media and social media algorithms are taking on the role of gatekeepers, deciding what kind of content people are exposed to. Recently, the spread of fake news gained momentum, and public trust in media has been declining ever since. But aren’t journalists also responsible for the shrinking trust in traditional media?

The arrival of social media democratized the access to and production of information, making people connect to each other more easily. Instead of getting closer to communities from the beginning, journalists just watched, believing they would still be the only ones responsible for disseminating high-quality information. Which did not happen— people relied on YouTubers and bloggers to get their news. Now, to regain the audience’s trust, journalists should find ways to reconnect with them.

The bad news is that audiences seem not to care about news anymore. According to the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report, almost a third of people (32 per cent) worldwide responded they “often or sometimes actively avoid the news,” including 41 per cent in the United States and 29 per cent in Canada. The report added that people run away from news because “it has a negative effect on their mood” (58 per cent) or because they feel “powerless to change events.”

At the same time, new technologies have brought enormous development and made it easier to produce and spread false stories. Although fake news is not a new phenomenon, they have gained more strength in a globalized world because of its speed, spread, and power.

Oxford research indicates that the production of fake news is associated with the origin of print media in 1439. At that time, there were already conspiracy theories about sea monsters and witches, or claims that sinners were responsible for natural disasters.

Today, however, fake news is spread in a much larger way. According to a Freedom of the Net report, the algorithms of Facebook, Google, and Twitter tend to promote viral or provocative articles that generate clicks, regardless of the veracity of their content. In effect, a BuzzFeed News analysis showed how false stories outperformed true stories from “traditional” media outlets on Facebook during the last US election.

Social media algorithms are taking the role as “gatekeepers,” a duty journalists once had pretty much to themselves—the only problem is that they can leave people to access false information. Despite some efforts, social media companies are still not fully engaged in combating the spread of disinformation on the internet—and I am not sure if they will anytime soon.

Besides, we see political efforts to weaken traditional media. Around the world, authoritarian leaders are appropriating the term “fake news” to characterize media coverage they do not like, which reduces the trust in these newspapers and media outlets. Inspired by Donald Trump, the president of my country, Brazil, the far-right conservative Jair Bolsonaro, often refers to the Brazilian mainstream media companies as “enemies,” moving people away from traditional newspapers and broadcast channels.

It is easy to point fingers at tech companies and political leaders and demand them to take responsibility for the rise of fake stories. But we cannot expect much from them. While they don’t take action to rebuild the trust in journalism, journalists should. Or, at least, it is the only option we have.

Rebuilding trust, however, requires a lot of effort and rethinking of journalistic practices.  Perhaps the idea of objectivity that fit well in traditional journalism for so many years doesn’t make sense in such a complex world. Some claim that journalism should stand for something: to keep the powerful in check, to pursue the truth, to provide context and perspective. “We take journalistic objectivity to be as natural and immutable as the stars, but it’s a relatively short-lived artifact of 20th-century America,” author Antonio García Martínez recently wrote in Wired. We live in an era where events are instantly captured from a dozen angles, allowing multiple interpretations. To think that only one media outlet will produce the “undeniable truth” is a bit naive. People want to read other people’s opinions and discuss them, that’s one reason social media has become so politicized.

It doesn’t mean that journalism is dead and journalists don’t have a role in this new public sphere—they just have to get closer to audiences. Being transparent in reporting, which ranked among the most important factors that influence trust in journalism, according to a Knight Foundation and Gallup poll, can be a starting point. Also, focused listening—a practice where newsrooms try to listen to their underserved or disengaged audiences— has a great potential to create connections.

Stories with personal approaches are also becoming very popular; one reason why podcasts are amassing audiences right now. Freelance journalist Jonah Weiner argues that voices in podcasts convey “warmth, empathy, personality and provide us with company—an antidote to the loneliness of the internet.”

With so many resources to create storytelling, journalism should be seen as a field full of opportunities, not a dying career. A study by The Discourse found that independent, digital media outlets are emerging as a sub-sector of the journalism industry, with the potential to deliver public service journalism in communities using audience-pay models. These outlets use practices of “slow,” engagement and investigative journalism and, as small outlets, they connect with their communities.

The solution to the existential crisis may not be found in technology, but in reconnecting with audiences. It is simpler than we imagine and it is up to us.

Graphic by @sundaeghost


Preventing Fake News

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.

François Raymond, a participant, cleans the streets on World Cleanup Day near the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal, Quebec. Photo by Reham Al Azem.

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

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