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Jeffrey Simpson

Lost in the fog of misinformation Add to ...

Last spring, it was difficult to turn on the television or radio, glance at a newspaper or drive anywhere in Canada without seeing advertising touting the Harper government's Economic Action Plan.

The stimulus plan had been outlined in the 2009 budget, then reinforced in the 2010 budget. Everywhere you turned, the government's communication machine was in overdrive telling Canadians all about it, the subtext being that the Harper government had brought the people all these good job-creating projects to combat the recession.

Except that, for all the money spent on communications, 41 per cent of Canadians (57 per cent of Quebeckers) had never heard of the Economic Action Plan. More than half of those over 60 - the ones we're told pay more attention to news and vote more frequently than young people - hadn't heard of the plan. And among those who'd heard of the plan, most didn't really know what it was about. These results emerged from an Environics poll conducted last April for the Department of Finance.

Maybe the ads and billboards were poorly done, but there were sure a lot of them. They were backed up by a barrage of announcements by the Prime Minister, his cabinet ministers and MPs in every corner of Canada.

But maybe this campaign flopped because a whole lot of people aren't interested in anything governmental, and/or they're just misinformed about a lot of things.

Take another recent poll. This one found that 30 per cent of Canadians believed that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff was somehow responsible for Canada's humiliating loss in its pursuit of a Security Council seat. This line was put out by the Harper spin machine. It was so egregiously false that even the spin machine dropped it after a couple of days. But it seems the misinformation stuck in the minds of almost a third of the electorate.

In the United States, a World Public Opinion survey for the University of Maryland again demonstrated how badly informed many Americans are. The survey asked Americans a range of factual questions about issues that had just figured in the midterm elections. The results showed "strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign, including the stimulus legislation, the health-care reform law, TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and President Obama's birthplace." (On that subject, 15 per cent of respondents said Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and 27 per cent said they weren't sure.)

Mr. Obama's stimulus package, approved by Congress, contained $288-billion in tax cuts, but 54 per cent of respondents said the package didn't contain such cuts. Only 28 per cent knew that the bailout for General Motors and Chrysler had occurred under both Mr. Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and other leading scientific institutions in the country, accept that climate change is occurring, but 45 per cent of Americans thought scientists were either divided on the evidence or rejected it. Mr. Obama doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but 43 per cent thought the number had remained the same or been reduced.

The more people followed the news, the better informed they were - even if a substantial minority of those consuming the news remained misinformed. The people who were the most misinformed - in terms of having opinions that varied the most from verifiable facts - were those who watched Fox News almost daily. They were further from being correctly informed on all issues, but especially the deficit, climate change and whether Mr. Obama was born in the U.S. (A Canadian variation of Fox News is coming, courtesy of Quebecor's search for a place on cable.)

The irony of this fog of misinformation is that both Canadians and Americans have never been better educated, in the formal sense of years spent in school. And the sources of information by which citizens can inform themselves have never been so great, courtesy of the Internet.

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