#onpoli newsletter - Fake news: what do you need to know?

A visit to the cottage prompts some thoughts on where the future of information is headed
By Eric Bombicino - Published on Aug 15, 2019
Illustration of a large bear wearing a Russian hat with Moscow in the background
The spectre of Russian interference continues to loom over future elections in Canada and elsewhere.

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Hello, #onpoli people,

I want to describe a special place to you.

A place where there’s no social media. No snark. Not even the love-him-or-hate-him podcaster Joe Rogan. And that generalized feeling of anger that burrows into your stomach lining and spews its toxic bile into your bloodstream? Nonexistent.
 
Instead, there’s just time. Time to think and relax. Time to have long conversations with people where you — get this — just listen to each other, and don’t accuse each other of being a monster or a threat to democracy. There’s also time for long hammock naps and bonfires and beers and lingering, pensive stares out at the water while you barbecue all the things.

And cannonballs. 

Someone jumps from raft into lake

I have returned from this special place we call “the cottage” here in Ontario. And now that I’m back in the land of social media and snark, I see that Joe Rogan has interviewed Bernie Sanders, who has promised to tell him about aliens if he ever becomes president. Cool, cool, cool.

My vacation is over, friends, but — and I say this with complete honesty — I’m genuinely excited to be back at work. I also need your help!

I’ve been thinking about Season 3 of the #onpoli podcast, which will be entirely devoted to the federal election. I’m curious: what do you want us to cover? What election issues don’t you know about, but would like to understand? 

First federal election of the post-truth era

One big theme I’ve been thinking about lately is the potential influence of fake news and the post-truth era on the federal election.

You can argue about when the post-truth era truly began, but it definitely became a clear and present (and Googled) danger after U.S. President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. That will make this fall Canada’s first federal election since we’ve made our first few terrifying steps into the post-truth world.

This is, of course, a complex issue. You can get lost in trying to understand how internet giants such as Facebook have commodified our attention and divided us in the process; or how foreign entities like Russia have made fake news a centrepiece of their geopolitical strategy; or how (now-defunct) data-savvy political firms like Cambridge Analytica have deployed “behavioural micro-targeting” to devastatingly successful effect. But it all leads to one thing: the destruction of the public square.

Once upon a time, the public square did, I’ve been told, exist. But to me it’s always seemed like more of a symbol than an actual place, where two essential things happen to make democracy work. First, everyone gathers in one “place” to speak (or shout) and, most important, hear one another. And second, all the speaking and shouting is about an agreed-upon set of facts. An agreed-upon concrete reality — just like the public square itself.

Increasingly, those two things aren’t happening. We like information that confirms our biases, so Google and Facebook dutifully serve it up to us. Social media happily provides echo chambers and online filter bubbles for the world we see around us. We now have “alternative facts,” as President Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway famously suggested in 2017 when pressed on Trump’s claim that his inauguration had a record turnout.

So, the big unwieldy question heading into October is: what influence will this new misinformation landscape have on the election? How many people will be driven to the polls based on “alternative facts?”

That’s a big question to tackle in just one episode, so here’s a few ways we can narrow it down. 

Bear wearing Russian hat with Moscow in the background

How scared should we be about Russia?

Russia meddled in the 2016 US election. Could it happen here? Last February, the CBC analyzed 9.6 million tweets about pipelines, refugees, and immigration that were suspected of originating in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. The posts have since been deleted from Twitter. Michael Pal, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said, “It appeared to be a test run for what they are trying to do for the election.”

The call is coming from inside the house

Of course, we can produce our own fake news and misinformation here in Canada. But what’s especially interesting is how new organizations such as Ontario Proud that deploy shareable memes and videos fit into the equation. They have a massive online footprint. Is this good, old-fashioned political advocacy succeeding at being heard in the public square? Or is it part of the misinformation landscape? 

It’s the internet’s architecture, stupid

If Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter decide what our internet looks like, and if they decide to meaningfully tackle the problem of fake news, it’s no longer a problem, right? Right?

Here’s the thing. Our entire internet experience is curated with one goal in mind: to command our attention. And what commands our attention happens to be stuff that makes us angry, stuff that we agree with, and in the case of YouTube, stuff that radicalizes us. YouTube’s entire business model depends on it. Can this conflict between demanding our attention and cracking down on misinformation be resolved? 

New era of political advertising

When we used to have a public square, a politician would have to say the same thing to everybody. Not anymore. Artificial intelligence-driven political firms have  harnessed troves of personal data to model our personalities and target us with tailored ads. That means a political party can send out different political messages to different people based on some pretty sophisticated knowledge about how they see the world. 

When they know more about us than we know about ourselves

This leads me to the thing I find the most fascinating and concerning. What happens when Google, Facebook, and AI-driven data firms know more about us than we know about ourselves? Sounds like sci-fi right?

Last year, I did a segment for The Agenda about how using AI to analyze a person’s Facebook and Twitter history enabled researchers to predict incidences of depression at a better rate than clinicians. The Canadian government is working with one AI firm based in Ottawa to scrape the data from Twitter in order to predict suicide waves so they can deploy resources before they occur to certain regions and communities. This level of sophistication is in its infancy, but it’s growing fast. Our desires, our vulnerabilities, our mental health: it’s all on the table for AI to “hack,” as historian Yuval Noah Harari puts it. What that means for the future of elections and politics remains an open question for now.

What do you want to know more about when it comes to ads and misinformation leading up to the federal election this fall? And is there anything else you want us to cover?

As always, write to us at onpolitics@tvo.org.

That’s all for this week. I sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, hope you are all enjoying your summer while I am back at work.

Eric
#onpoli producer 
 

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