Politicians on all sides are being pounded by misinformation and conspiracy theories. What can Canada do?

Ottawa – As Jagmeet Singh left a campaign office in Peterborough on Tuesday, confronted by a crowd hurling death threats and swear words, the NDP leader felt he was suffering the effects of an illness that afflicts many our democracy more and more.

“Polarization and misinformation,” Singh said, was behind the assault on a crowd that included Neil Sheard, an anti-lockdown activist who was one of the organizers of the “Rolling Thunder” protest. ‘Ottawa.

Just two days earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had his own confrontation with misinformation. A 2016 photo of Trudeau, his son Xavier, and then International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland was widely shared online as an image of the prime minister taking his son to a U2 concert during his recent surprise trip to Kyiv ( they did not attend the concert).

Conservative leadership candidates were not spared either. As they kicked off a debate in Edmonton on Wednesday night, live chats on YouTube were seething with baseless conspiracy theories that the candidates were allegedly operatives tied to the World Economic Forum.

The incidents illustrate a broader scourge of misleading content plaguing Canada, the consequences of which will grow ever deeper, experts say.

Marcus Kolga, a misinformation expert at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, observed how Russian state media amplified anti-vaccination narratives and conspiracies in Canada, which coalesced into convoy movements across the country. In turn, he has seen Canadian anti-lockdown groups seize and spread Russian disinformation about Ukraine. These “existential threats,” says Kolga, will lead to an increase in radical narratives that could spur more protests like the Ottawa Convoy and the Capitol Hill Riot in the United States.

“If we don’t deal with this problem now, and if we don’t fix it, it will end up undermining our democracy,” he said.

But Canada continues to plan how it plans to curb the onslaught of fake news, even as other countries have recently taken steps to tackle it head-on.

In late April, the European Union approved landmark legislation that would protect internet users from misinformation, hate speech and other harmful content, and require big tech companies to remove flagged posts from their platforms or face penalties. heavy fines. The United States Department of Homeland Security also recently established a “disinformation governance council” to counter false information from foreign states.

Other countries have approached the problem in a number of ways, some of which have been seen as legitimate attempts to weed out deliberately misleading content, while others have been criticized as politically motivated attempts to restrict free speech.

It’s a problem that Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez could potentially address through legislation to regulate big tech. So far, his department has taken steps like funding organizations that help Canadians protect themselves from misinformation online.

It’s also something Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly and other ministers say they’re monitoring internationally, pulling Russian state media off the Canadian airwaves and funding G7 initiatives to target foreign interference. .

But determining what is considered harmful and misleading content, and how far governments should go to block it, means legislating disinformation in Canada is somewhat of a “nuclear option,” Kolga said.

“If we’re talking about forcing social media to remove specific content posted by Canadians…you’re going to run into a lot of political resistance from people on the right who are strong advocates of free speech,” said he declared.

Indeed, Ottawa’s consultation on online harms – which focused on harmful online content like hate speech and child sexual exploitation rather than misinformation – drew criticism that future legislation interfere with freedom of expression.

Canadian Heritage has now convened a panel of experts to help establish a legislative and regulatory framework before such a law is introduced, but this time misinformation is expected to be considered in the final session of the panel.

Bernie Farber, president of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and one of the panel members, said he was “pretty happy” the topic was included among other online mischief, but told The Star that its potential inclusion could broaden the scope of the legislation too much. .

Kolga is of a similar view, saying that while misinformation overlaps with hate speech, it is still “several degrees” from most types of harm online.

For NDP legacy critic Peter Julian, “the rise of misinformation and the rise of hate in Canada run parallel.”

Despite Julian’s belief that the government is not responding to the urgency of the moment, he doesn’t think Ottawa should immediately rush to legislate fake content.

“I certainly think there are best practices in other jurisdictions that need to be looked at, and the government has the capacity to do that now,” Julian said.

In a statement to the Star, Rodriguez said governments around the world are “struggling” with the issue.

“We’re going to take the time we need to get it right and work with MPs from all parties to fight misinformation together,” he said.

Alberta Senator Paula Simons – who said her Senate inbox is sometimes overflowing with so much misinformation she can’t use it – argued that the way forward for Ottawa must be on large online platforms instead. only on targeted individuals.

“I really worry that when we criminalize speech — even the worst speech, even the worst speech — we don’t really solve the problem, which are the networks that are putting it out there,” she said.

Another solution, said Kolga, is for the federal government to work with provinces to improve digital media literacy from childhood and create an ongoing task force with social media giants to monitor misinformation.

“Even though these social media giants make their money from the clicks on the ads they sell, I have to believe they also have a stake in ensuring the health of our democracy and also have a stake in helping to clean up our IT environment” , did he declare. .


Raisa Patel is an Ottawa journalist who covers federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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