High-school students should be educated about how to spot fake videos and photos and disinformation, because they are so prevalent online, federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says.
Speaking from the G7 summit in Germany, the minister said disinformation is “one of the most pervasive threats to all our democracies right now” and more needs to be done to raise awareness and equip Canadians to navigate its dangers.
He said the “marketplace for disinformation” is far outpacing the “marketplace for reliable information” and Canadians should be helped to discern the difference between genuine and false facts online.
Mr. Mendicino has warned that the technology used by those spreading disinformation is so sophisticated that it can be very difficult for people to differentiate between fake information and genuine content.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, nine in 10 Canadians used online sources to find information about COVID-19, according to Statistics Canada, with 96 per cent saying that during the first few months of the health crisis they had seen information they suspected was misleading, false or inaccurate.
Mr. Mendicino said in an interview on Thursday that Canada took a leading role in talks at the G7 this week about disinformation, and will play host to a further summit next year to co-ordinate strategies to combat it.
He invited ministers from Britain, the United States, France, Japan, Germany and Italy to come to Canada with “the brightest minds from our countries to figure out how we can get ahead of the curve.”
Canada and other G7 members, he said, want to “build up digital literacy to equip citizens in all our countries with the skills and the tools that they need to understand … what is fact and what is not fact.”
He said he supported educating high-school students on how to spot disinformation, as well as fraudulent e-mails and texts and online scams, alongside consumer education.
Mr. Mendicino said disinformation is not only a problem for individuals but a threat to G7 economies, academia and research sectors and democratic institutions.
He said it was a “pervasive threat that faces all democracies, and we do need to get ahead of it and really start to push back on the spread of disinformation.”
Much of it, including “deep fake” videos and bots spreading deception, originates from abroad, including Russia, the U.S. and China, or is amplified by foreign powers, research has shown. “Deep fakes” are fake videos or photos that use deep learning technology, which creates highly realistic-looking counterfeit images.
A study by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy found that thousands of tweets and retweets about the war in Ukraine can be traced back to Russia and China.
Jean-Christophe Boucher, an associate professor who led the study, said there is a “complacency” in Canada about the existence and impact of disinformation and a lot of people do not recognize fake news when they see it.
He said many influencers are being used without their knowledge by foreign powers to spread dissent and erode trust in democratic institutions and create internal chaos.
“There are still a lot of people on the far left and far right who participate willingly or unwillingly with foreign interference,” he said. They are also finding news on Russian state-sponsored websites, he said.
He said various branches of government, including Canada’s electronic spy agency, had a role in exposing disinformation and helping Canadians spot it.
The Communications Security Establishment, which monitors Russia-backed disinformation, warned earlier this year on Twitter that Russia was using platforms featuring antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant material to manipulate global audiences.