Mainstream media already has itself on the ropes in the fake news fight

OTTAWA—Months after the 2019 budget announced the details $600-million bailout meant to help the fledgling and inflexible Canadian news media industry, they’ve been complicit in spreading disinformation.

Canadian mainstream media needs to check itself.

Over the Canada Day weekend, right-wing political advertiser and digital media platform Canada Proud tweeted a video of an interaction between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In an effort to characterize the interaction, the Canada Proud tweet read, “This is just sad. Nobody respects Justin Trudeau.” The video showed Trudeau seated between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Bolsonaro, with Trudeau gesturing towards Bolsonaro before Bolsonaro turns away from Trudeau and towards the person on his other side, showing a seeming snub. Quelle horreur.

Except the video wasn’t an accurate depiction of what took place. What’s worse is that it didn’t originate with Canada Proud—a partisan group; Global News tweeted it, thereby showing a truncated version of events by removing the context and creating a false narrative. Since then, Global updated their timeline with a longer (and accurate) version.

This is as much of a smoking gun as Hillary Clinton’s emails. And with the comparable level of hysteria.

Twitter exploded, as it is wont to do: politicians, pundits, and reporters retweeted it without verification, only to discover a day later that it was inaccurate, because the longer version of the video surfaced that showed Trudeau was trying to tell Bolsonaro that the person seated on the Brazilian leader’s other side was trying to get his attention. Of course that didn’t stop pundits and journalists who, not only refused to acknowledge their error, but also pivoted to Trudeau’s interactions with President Xi. And the press corps followed like lemmings.

There’s been a proliferation of organizations like Ontario Proud, which appeared before the House of Commons Ethics Committee in December 2018 and questioned about, among other things, a lack of transparency in their out-of-province funding. They have since been exposed as getting the bulk of their funding from large corporations and developers, who have benefited handsomely from the election of Doug Ford in Ontario, in some cases directly. Canada Proud, which shares the same personnel and founder as Ontario Proud, is already hard at work in an effort to “defeat Liberals all over the country,” according to founder Jeff Ballingall. Sounds like a reliable and unbiased source, eh.

There is also a real and emergent issue with fake news—more than just a Trumpian slur leveled at legitimate criticism. Fake news is a real phenomena occurring online and especially on social media. A recent poll from Ipsos Public Affairs for Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) found that 90 per cent of Canadians have fallen for fake news, i.e., wholly or partly false information. This explains why the anti-vaxxer movement is thriving, at the risk of our collective health.

Some fake news comes from the mainstream media itself, or are we forgetting the 2016 U.S. general election when everyone from the New York Times to CNN failed to fact check then-candidate Donald Trump?

This is to say nothing of legitimate findings of foreign interference into American elections and, according to CSIS and CSE, Canadian ones, too.

Why then is the media not more vigilant?

The same Ipsos poll for CIGI found that 89 per cent of Canadians now distrust social media companies. We saw some reporters blame Twitter for their failure to scrutinize the June 29 Canada Proud tweet. Yes, social media is to blame. In part. But what good is a journalist if they can’t vet a source? Or at the very least, provide a video that shows a complete interaction, thus allowing the viewer to form their own opinion?

Media literacy, whether social or mainstream, is hugely important. Educators and civil society groups are now working to educate kids on how to spot fake information online. Looks like media outlets could use a tutorial, too.

This election is already acrimonious, but what confidence can we have in news if the media can’t exercise enough digital judgement to decipher the wheat from the chaff? And why would we pay $600-million to save an industry that has devolved into clickbait?

Erica Ifill and Amy Kishek are co-hosts of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.

As published in The Hill Times