As we live in an era with tremendous levels of information created and consumed through our expanding digital media, there is also a considerable degree of misinformation that can present falsehoods and thereby deceive people. This challenges our ability to identify, understand, and reliably acquire factual information. Accordingly, the spread of false, fallacious, and manipulative information threatens democracy because it directly undermines scientific evidence and factual truth – which are fundamental for engaging in effective political dialogue and also for ensuring accountable and responsible governance.
This was the central contention made on June 30th, 2020, by Professor Phillip Howard, director of Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute, when he spoke at the CIC’s Toronto’s virtual seminar ‘Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Social Media’. The seminar, which was for CIC members only, was held in conversation with Gabrielle Lim, a Researcher at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center and Fellow of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. CIC members across Canada tuned in eagerly to the timely seminar.
In commencing the discussion, Dr. Howard – using his research from his newly published book entitled Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives – illustrated our current information era to a tee: “there is a never-ending cascade of misinformation generated by political actors around the world”. Howard argues that we now find ourselves in the constant presence of ‘Lie Machines’ – “social and technological mechanisms for pushing some untrue claim into the service of ideology”.
This global spread of misinformation through digital media can harm democracy. In the research for his book, Howard identified how typically inauthentic Russian accounts have often tended to ignite into flurries of activity during major US political events with the intention of polarizing American voters based on demographics. Instances that triggered high levels of fake Russian account activities included whenever Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would debate key issues – such as race, abortion, and gun rights – in lead up to the 2016 US Presidential election. Inauthentic, coordinated Russian accounts were also active in 2018 US Congressional elections, spreading a variety of misinformation.
Ms. Lim joined in on this discussion of misinformation, with both academics identifying a diminishing amount of public trust in social media platforms. Much of this mistrust stems
from how these social media platforms both use information from its users and also enable bot accounts to enter into political discussion with social media users. For instance, Dr. Howard explained how the UK Labour party used Tinder bots in lead up to the UK general election on December 12, 2019, to swing voters in the party’s favour. With this, Dr. Howard and Ms. Lim showed concern over the growth of such deceptive digital tactics and its use amongst political parties in liberal democracies.
As both academics began to answer CIC member’s numerous questions, the final discussions became focused on misinformation in the age of COVID-19. Reflecting upon the previously mentioned prominence of transnational interference, Dr. Howard contended that Russia and China can reach a billion users with their “Junk COVID-19 news”. Indeed, the negative impact of the global dispersion of junk news and misinformation amidst this pandemic cannot be overlooked. For Howard, correct answers and factual information do promote the quality of public life whereas misinformation itself – as we have seen through COVID-19 – is quite literally deadly.
Due to this, Dr. Howard explained that information channels must be remodified to ensure that the best data is available in the public realm. Dr. Howard suggested a ‘blood diamond’ approach; whereby some sort of device identification methodology is developed to help users determine who are the ultimate beneficiaries of user data extraction. In doing so, users can also understand which organizations are publishing factual evidence and, conversely, what sites are partaking in data collection and spreading junk news. Consequently, the more manipulative organizations can then be flagged and excluded by citizens.
Ms. Lim concurred on the importance of ensuring that the best data is available to the public, arguing that truthful and reliable demographics and health data, in particular, must be available to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflecting upon this point further, Ms. Lim contended that there is now more responsibility than ever from mainstream media and leaders to provide accurate information and to ensure that the public can access it. Yet, since there is no guarantee of this occurring, it ultimately falls upon citizens to be diligent in their pursuit of knowledge and epistemology, discerning what is false and what is true through constant investigation of information from a variety of sources.
The CIC would like to thank both Dr. Howard and Ms. Lim for leading the seminar. Dr. Howard and Ms. Lim revealed some of the threats to democracy posed by the global spread of untruthful information as well as the social media platforms on which this misinformation spreads. Their discussion was very insightful and left seminar attendees with further food for thought.