Fake news has serious consequences: it influences how people vote, what health-care choices they make and even promotes far-fetched theories that steer individuals toward extreme content.
During the first few months of the pandemic, Statistics Canada found that 40 per cent of Canadians reported believing that the information they saw related to the virus was true, then later realized it was not. The same report, Misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, also found that 53 per cent of Canadians shared COVID-19 information without knowing if it was accurate.
The growing problem of misinformation prompted two RCMP employees to take action by developing a workshop to help people understand and avoid it.
We wanted to create a discussion about the negative consequences of an overload of information, and how spreading false information can cause serious problems," says Community Program Officer Laili Yazdani, who's based in Saskatoon, Sask.
Yazdani developed the Disinformation and Misinformation workshop series in partnership with Cst. Ryan MacLeod of the RCMP's National Security Enforcement Section - Public Engagement Unit in Saskatchewan.
Defining the problem
While some believe that misinformation and disinformation are interchangeable, they are in fact distinct terms.
Disinformation is intentional. It can promote hate toward members of racialized communities, cause distrust between the public and people in authority such as politicians and medical experts, promote alternative agendas, disrupt the economy, and even incite violence.
In the workshop, Yazdani and MacLeod explain how people and programmed software known as bots and computer algorithms can spread disinformation. This includes deep-fake videos that are created using artificial intelligence to misrepresent well-known politicians and spread misleading ideas and information.
Just as harmful is misinformation — false or misleading information that's shared without the intent to cause direct harm.
Harm to health and safety
MacLeod says all Canadians are responsible for protecting people from disinformation and misinformation because it can be harmful to a person's mental and physical health, and can threaten public safety.
We're asking people to look at all the information they receive online or on their social media, with a touch of skepticism," says MacLeod. "
Even if it does come from someone you think is a trusted source."
Saskatoon high school student Liam McKay-Argyriou took the workshop. The 15-year-old says beforehand, he never gave much thought to the origins of his news, but now he makes sure he gets it from reputable sources.
I've heard friends talk and I've seen how information can get twisted around," says McKay-Argyriou, who volunteers on the RCMP's National Youth Advisory Committee. "
It's important to see how it can happen and to know what to do to avoid spreading it further."
The workshop encourages participants to question what they see by:
- assessing the source of the information and ask where it came from
- thinking about whether your own personal biases could affect your judgement, and
- checking for supporting information from trusted news outlets.
Our key message is: Be critical when you read information online," says Yazdani. "
If the content provokes a strong emotional response, like outrage, disgust or even excitement, it may be disinformation or misinformation."
Before the project was launched at the start of 2021, Yazdani and MacLeod consulted with the Federal Policing Prevention and Engagement Unit, the Contract and Indigenous Policing Unit, and the Digital Citizen Initiative — a program at the department of Canadian Heritage that funds projects aimed at combatting disinformation.
The workshop is part of an online series called How to Prevent an Infodemic!, which includes other sessions on topics such as hate-motivated crime and radicalization to violence.
For more information about the virtual workshops, contact Laili Yazdani at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ryan MacLeod at email@example.com.