OTTAWA — It was a week that saw politicians of all stripes grapple with conspiracy theories, anti-government sentiment and misleading content online.
As NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh left a campaign office in Peterborough on Tuesday, he endured a hostile episode of verbal harassment from a mob shouting death threats, “liar” and expletive-laced insults at him. Among the crowd was Neil Sheard, an organizer behind Ottawa’s “Rolling Thunder” demonstration who has protested against COVID-19 restrictions.
In a statement following the incident, Singh cited “polarization and disinformation” as the root of the aggression.
Just two days earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found himself the target of a misleading campaign, featuring a 2016 photo of Trudeau, his son Xavier, and then international trade minister Chrystia Freeland watching a demonstration at a military base in western Ukraine.
But that’s not how some Twitter users described the image this week: they claimed the photo depicted the prime minister taking his son to a U2 concert in Kyiv, which they falsely claimed was held the same day he made a surprise trip there last weekend.
Even Conservative leadership hopefuls weren’t spared. As they took to a debate stage in Edmonton on Wednesday night, live chats on YouTube bubbled over with baseless conspiracy theories about which candidates were allegedly agents linked to the World Economic Forum.
The incidents are just a few examples of a wider scourge of misleading content plaguing Canada, the consequences of which will be far-reaching, says Marcus Kolga, a disinformation expert with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Kolga has observed how Russian state media has amplified anti-vaccination narratives and conspiracies in Canada, which coalesced into convoy movements across the country. In turn, he’s seen Canadian anti-lockdown groups seizing on and spreading Russian disinformation about Ukraine. These “existential threats,” Kolga says, will lead to an increase in radical narratives that could incite more protests like the Ottawa convoy and Capitol Hill riot in the United States.
“If we don’t take care of this problem right now, and if we don’t address it, it’s going to eventually undermine our democracy,” he said.
But Canada is still charting how it plans to rein in the onslaught of false information, even as other nations have recently made moves to address it head on.
In late April, the European Union approved landmark legislation that would protect internet users from disinformation, hate speech and other harmful content, and compel big tech companies to remove flagged posts from their platforms or face steep ends. The United States Department of Homeland Security also recently struck a “disinformation governance board” to counter false information flowing from foreign states.
Other countries have tackled the issue in a number of ways, some of which have been viewed as legitimate attempts to weed out deliberately misleading content, while others have been criticized as politically motivated attempts to curtail free speech.
It’s an issue Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez could potentially address through legislation aimed at regulating big tech. For now, his department has taken steps like funding organizations that help Canadians protect themselves from disinformation online.
It’s also something Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and other ministers say they are monitoring at the international level, removing Russian state media from Canadian airwaves and funding G7 initiatives aimed at targeting foreign interference.
But determining what is deemed harmful and misleading content, and how far governments should go to block it, means legislating disinformation in Canada is something of a “nuclear option,” Kolga said.
“If we’re talking about forcing social media to take down specific content that’s posted by Canadians … you’re going to run up against a lot of political resistance from people on the right who are ardent defenders of free speech,” he said.
Indeed, Ottawa’s online harms consultation — which was focused on harmful online content like hate speech and the sexual exploitation of children rather than disinformation — sparked criticism that future legislation would chill free speech.
Heritage Canada has now agreed to a panel of experts to help establish a legislative and regulatory framework ahead of introducing such a law, but this time, disinformation is set to be studied in the group’s final session.
Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and one of the panel’s members, said he’s “quite glad” the subject is being included among other online harms, but told the Star its potential inclusion might broaden the scope of the legislation too much .
Kolga is of a similar view, saying that while disinformation overlaps with hate speech, it’s still “several degrees away” from most kinds of online harms.
For NDP heritage critic Peter Julian, Canada’s “rise in disinformation and the rise in hate are in parallel.”
Despite Julian’s belief that the government isn’t meeting the urgency of the moment, he doesn’t think Ottawa should immediately rush to legislate false content.
“I certainly think there are best practices in other jurisdictions that need to be looked at, and the government has the ability to do that now,” Julian said.
In a statement to the Star, Rodriguez said governments around the world are “grappling” with the issue.
“We are going to take the time we need to get this right, and work with members of Parliament, across all parties, to tackle disinformation together,” he said.
Albert Sen. Paula Simons — who said her Senate inbox is sometimes overflowing with so much disinformation she cannot use it — argued Ottawa’s path forward must lie with large online platforms rather than targeting individuals.
“I really worry that when we criminalize speech — even the worst speech, even the very worst of speech — we’re not actually solving the problem, which are the networks that spread it,” she said.
Another solution, Kolga said, is for the federal government to work with provinces to improve digital media literacy from childhood onwards, and establishing a permanent task force with social media giants to monitor disinformation.
“Even though these social media giants make their money off clicks on ads that they sell, I also have to believe that they have an interest in ensuring that our democracy’s healthy and also have an interest in helping clean up our information environment,” he said .
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