Last month I debuted the Jaunty Journo Jargon column with a blurb about the history of journalism and the foundations for the press. This week, I’d like to talk about a less jaunty, timeless issue that is garnering much contemporary attention: misinformation.
This topic was highly relevant to my journalism courses in Ottawa for a few reasons. Firstly, the examination of misinformation through the years shows some of the critical ways it has shaped journalism. Secondly, it’s an issue that merits a special kind of attention from journalists today. Thirdly, it’s a topic that my first semester journalism professor, Sarah Everts, has some personal experience with.
Terminology is important. In class, we defined misinformation as being misguided, often widespread, information. Conversely, disinformation refers to a malicious, intentional attempt to misinform the public. Both are highly relevant topics of discussion, but misinformation is going to be what news readers are most familiar with, and what is often most dangerous.
As wide-spreading information became more attainable, the potential for fabrications naturally grew, but what makes misinformation so special is what goes into its transmission. It’s easier, and often more convincing, to spread falsehoods if you genuinely believe you are right.
So how do you know if you’re wrong? As a journalist, I’d like to give a special shout-out to the concept of journalistic standards. Confirming facts. Being accurate. Acting objectively. Publicizing the truth.
These universally accepted cornerstones of journalism get their fame out of the necessity brought up by the potential for the efficient spread of misinformation under the guise of “news.” Essentially, we want you to know what makes us different.
Despite these values, however, the actual process of spreading information has become easier than ever. It’s not hard to see why. It’s everywhere. And it almost always ties back to social media.
Professor Everts focused much of her research at Carleton University on the percentages of Canadians who take misinformation as fact, and the overlap with the percentages of Canadians who are confident they can differentiate the two.
A survey asked Canadians if they felt they could tell when something online is true, and presented them with four conspiracy theories about Covid-19. Fifty-seven per cent believed they could “easily distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation from actual information about Covid-19.” Forty-six per cent believed at least one of the myths they were presented with.
Of the respondents, 49 per cent of those who believed Covid-19 was a bioweapon invented by the Chinese, and 58 per cent who believed Covid-19 is a cover-up to the illness inflicted by exposure to 5G wireless technology, believed they could easily distinguish what online information is fact.
Tying back to the discussion of journalistic standards, what stands out about the spread of misinformation like this is the distancing from facts, accuracy, objectivity and truth.
This is a critical conversation today, because in the last week we’ve seen Meta, the tech giant that controls Facebook and Instagram, block Canadian news for Canadians.
The definition from federal Bill C-18, the legislation Meta says this decision is in response to, defines news with several requirements, most notably that of adhering to recognized process and principles of the journalistic profession; those standards.
The Beaverton, a Canadian satire publication, was also initially blocked, but contested and successfully overturned this by pointing out in an open letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg that they don’t employ journalistic standards. While their letter was funny, it was also incredibly sad to have the point driven home that in order to avoid the censorship of your content, you simply have to not abide by journalistic standards.
So for Shootin’ the Breeze, whose Facebook page provided critical and potentially life-saving information about issues like the Kenow fire and Covid-19 is blocked, content creators who don’t value delivery accuracy are fair game.
An open statement by Nick Clegg, Meta president, detailed why they felt this move was appropriate, citing among other things that Canadian news content “isn’t that important to [their] users.”
I wonder, is it important to you?