Photo by Mickey Conlon

Reality of fake news threatens freedom

  • May 17, 2019

Less than a month after Pope Francis warned about the perils of misinformation and “fake news,” new research unearths some rather disturbing findings about the issue in Canada.

Two out of every five Canadians (40 per cent) say they feel either “not very confident” or “not confident at all” in their ability to tell the difference between real news stories and news stories containing misinformation and fake news. 

Commissioned by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, the poll conducted by Earnscliffe Strategy Group shows that more than half of respondents (53 per cent) have come across stories where the facts were twisted to push an agenda and three-quarters of Canadians don’t know which politicians to trust, up from 56 per cent only one year ago.

And this online poll is substantive with 2,359 respondents proportionally representing all regions of Canada. The typical online poll has a pool of 1,000 to 1,500 people. The larger sample means the numbers are statistically plus or minus two percentage points.

There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the rapid rise of misinformation and untruths across media platforms, most especially online. Calling it a “troubling evolution,” the Pope said misinformation and fake news is helping euthanasia make inroads, stifling social equality, building societal walls and polarization, and threatening human dignity and freedom of conscience.

“This confusion creates an erosion of trust that is a very real threat to the foundation of our democracy,” CJF President and Executive Director Natalie Turvey said in a release. “Manipulation and misinformation sow many seeds; from distrust of leaders and unfounded damages to reputations to promoting hatred and recruitment of people to extremist groups.”

Just last week, Michael Swan of The Catholic Register reported on Statistics Canada’s new findings that there was a massive 47-per-cent year-over-year increase in Canadian hate crimes in 2017, the most recent numbers. 

And in one of those hate crimes — the shooting in January 2017 at the Quebec City mosque where six lives were lost — fake news was part of the story. Alt-right websites reported a suspect was a Muslim man of Moroccan background and word spread like wildfire. Fox News even tweeted out the Moroccan misinformation. In fact, the Muslim man was a witness and the shooter was a lone white supremacist who had been bullied in school. 

Fake news is a clear and present danger. There have been untruths and misinformation for as long as people have communicated. But with the rise of social media, everyone effectively has their own printing press or broadcast station on their computer or smart phone.

And malicious people are using fake news to their advantage, some to further political agendas, others simply for monetary gains by generating high volumes of page views which boost advertisement views which pay them pennies per view. 

Craig Silverman, an award-winning author and one of the world’s leading experts on online misinformation and the attention economy, has found numerous examples of people making tens of thousands of dollars per month simply spreading lies.

The Canadian Journalism Foundation research is illuminating on many levels. Not surprisingly, there are marked generational differences in how news is consumed, how younger and older people come across their news and how they deal with fake news when they discover it. (Younger consumers are much more likely to report the bogus content to social media platforms, for example.)

Here are some more of the findings:

• Confusion over authenticity and trust has increased exponentially in only one year; 

• “The average person does not know how to tell good journalism from rumour and falsehood” (from 63 per cent to 74 per cent);

• “It’s becoming harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization” (from 59 per cent to 67 per cent); 

• “I don’t know what companies or brands to trust” (from 42 per cent to 55 per cent). 

• The platforms believed to contain “a lot” of misinformation and fake news are social media sites (42 per cent), links received via e-mail (29 per cent) and messages sent by friends (28 per cent).

• The most concerning examples of fake news and misinformation are stories about health by spreading wrong information about medical risks and benefits.

• Four in five (83 per cent) Traditionalists (born before the end of WWII) were specifically looking for news compared to two-thirds of Generation Z (born since 1996) who were doing something else when they came across news; 

• Nearly six in 10 (58 per cent) of Traditionalists get their online news using a computer, whereas 48 per cent of Generation Z use a mobile device.

With the coming federal election, the CJF is building on its popular NewsWise website that gives students the tools to identify fake news and expanding it with new content for Canadians of voter age. Check it out for tips on identifying fake news. A properly and truthfully informed electorate means a stronger democracy. Unfortunately, the opposite can too easily occur in the “post-truth” era, as some call it.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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