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a woman in a protest holds a sign FAKE ENWS = TERRORISTS
People protesting Biden’s election participate in “Stop the Steal,” a pro-Trump rally in Madison, Wisc., in November 2020. (Shutterstock)

Governments should inoculate citizens to prevent the spread of fake news

Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election showed how disinformation could disrupt a democratic process. And due to the current reach of social media, the risk of fake news being disseminated is greater than ever.

Foreign intervention in the Canadian federal election was relatively insignificant compared to the U.S. presidential election, but the potential ramifications of fake news in Canada still require extra awareness and effort to counter it in the long run.

Canada needs a broad strategy that combines approaches from national and international governments, private companies like Google and Facebook and third-party entities like the fact-checking organization DisinfoWatch.

Inoculating the public

Emerging during the Second World War, inoculation theory concentrated on political persuasion and propaganda campaigns. When U.S. soldiers in the Far East faced the danger of being brainwashed if captured, psychologist William McGuire developed a different focus: to “inoculate” people to resist being “brainwashed.”

McGuire referred to this as a “vaccine for brainwash” that would boost the population’s resilience to disinformation and decrease their susceptibility to fake news.

Inoculation reduces the effectiveness of disinformation. Education and training in critical thinking for the public is acutely important, especially for adolescents, whose perspectives and skills like objective reasoning and analysis are starting to develop.

As the risk of electoral intervention increases, Canada has been allocating a tremendous amount of resources to combat possible occurrences. Content on how to identify fake news has even been added to school curricula.

Federal initiatives, like the Digital Citizen Initiative and Digital Citizen Research Program, also work to strengthen the public’s resistance to persuasion by disinformation.

dictionary entry for DISINFORMATION
Disinformation can have dramatic impacts on political outcomes. (Shutterstock)

Fragmented approaches

Canada does not have one specific unit, department or institution that focuses on fighting disinformation. In addition to police and military departments, there are several branches of government that deal with disinformation and cybersecurity.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) often publishes reports regarding disinformation as a security challenge and warns of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, especially during elections.

Meanwhile, the Communication Security Establishment (CSE), also a national security and intelligence organization, focuses on cyberthreats, foreign-based terrorism and other espionage. Its July 2021 report examines the extent of cyberthreats to Canada’s democratic process.

The Competition Bureau Canada also addresses fake news related to COVID-19 and businesses, while the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre engages with suspected criminal activities.

Canada lacks an integrated institution that oversees all cybersecurity intelligence and analysis, planning and executing efforts to counter disinformation.

A panel organized by the London School of Economics looks at the problem of fake news in politics.

Open communication

Cybercrime is intensifying and relations between countries (such as the U.S. and China) are worsening. Instances of foreign involvement in political campaigns have been documented.

In this new era of cyberthreats to national security, it will be necessary for governments to communicate openly and share information as authoritarian regimes attempt to undermine their opponents.

A department within the Canadian government with the authority to enforce a whole-of-government approach would be unquestionably vital for Canada’s liberal democratic future.

Internationally, the Canadian government should take more specific actions that align with our allies and like-minded democracies to “strengthen our capacity to prevent malign interference by foreign actors aimed at undermining electoral processes through malicious cyber activities.”

This could start by establishing an integrated system within the Five Eyes alliance that includes the exchange of sensitive information to combat disinformation and, in the future, further extended to more democracies.

There is, unfortunately, no single solution for fighting disinformation. Multidisciplinary approaches by international and national governments, private companies and other organizations are all vital to improve the resilience of national security and protect our democratic society from information warfare.

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