We know it’s coming and it will be confounding. The use of fake news, “Black Ops,” and digital algorithms designed to skew reality are about to become part and parcel of the next federal election campaign scheduled for a few months from now. We look on, aghast, at the social media shenanigans south of the border, but we’re about to face our own version.
Political parties are already testing the waters with fabricated innuendos in the effort to shake voters out of their lethargy. Efforts are being made to counteract such actions by everyone from Elections Canada to everyday democracy watchdogs, and in spite of the fact that Canadians speak disapprovingly of such efforts to warp their brains, the parties will go ahead anyway because, well, it’s about winning and not about ethics.
Things become more sinister when considering interference from outside of Canada. A CBC analysis back in February looked at 9.6 million tweets from Twitter accounts that have since been deleted but which tossed about false information on refugees, immigration and pipelines in order to alter the mindset of Canadians. What was significant is that the tweets were suspected to have been sourced in Iran, Russia and Venezuela.
Media has to guard against being used by those seeking to create mayhem and doubt. As University of Ottawa associate professor Michael Pal put it: “This is happening now … If there are nine million tweets about an issue, journalists may want to cover it because it appears to be a big issue.” The trouble is that many media organizations, political parties, and average citizens don’t have the money nor technology to spot these cybercrimes. This next federal election will provide a litmus test, not just for the capacity of our security services, but for the abilities of Canadians and their institutions to discern the difference between what is false and what is vital.
Increasingly what matters now in political advertising isn’t truth or information but reach. If some person or organization can get retweeted enough with their fabrications, then it won’t matter so much whether the claim is true or not. In other words, rational democracy is under assault. There remains the ongoing problem that if someone sees, reads or hears something on social media that they then will presume it must be true. We’re getting smarter at understanding we get conned now and then, but our overall reaction is still to just absorb what’s presented to us. The peddlers of lies and fabrications understand the penchant for Canadians to be more trusting than most and then seek to turn our naiveté into votes and money.
Our reality now is that the explosion of free speech through the medium of the Internet has driven truth into the background. The democratic tradition has always held the freedom of speech is not only a sacred tenet of our politics but was essential to transparency. Now all these opinions flooding our senses have clouded authenticity and frequently silenced people with insight and experience.
For information, however it gets communicated, to be effective, it must above all be valid. But the viability of items posted about politics these days isn’t nearly as important as how many people it reaches and affects. Facebook continues in its dominance even though growing numbers of users distrust it, simply because thousands can be reached with just one click – the algorithm takes care of the rest. This is why political parties refuse to quit Facebook even as they call for hearings to regulate it. It has become the medium of choice for millions because of how it peddles information and images, not the truth.
Political systems have continually opened up in recent decades as politicians have been brought closer to their constituencies. The expansion of free speech was meant to be the ultimate protector of the truth in the new democracy. Instead, it has become its shroud. There is truth everywhere on the Internet, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what is real and what is not. And if bogus and deviant communications groups can use fake news to stoke fear and confusion of their enemies, they will do it without a second thought.
It’s one thing to ferret out and disclose the political meddling of the Russians, Iranians or Venezuelans, but if our political parties seek to utilize twisted facts, false claims and fake news in their desire for ascendancy, that is a far greater danger to Canada’s future than foreign intrigues. We’re already seeing it in some of the ads running up to the election.
Only those political parties that seek to function with the truth deserve the trust of protecting it. The challenge for Canadians in this coming federal contest will be in discerning which parties will actually build their fortunes on what is real and authentic instead of twisting or even denying truth in their pursuit of power.