Why fake news in New Brunswick is important

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Ninety percent of Canadians say they have fallen for fake news online.  The consequences can be far-reaching and affect the economic, political, and social health of New Brunswick. The negative impact of fake news should not be understated. It can affect business and consumer confidence in products and companies, leading to uncertainty. Economists have estimated that the epidemic of online fake news now costs the global economy $78 billion annually.  Fake news can also affect stock prices because trading algorithms act on information—accurate or fake— extracted from headlines in newswires and social media. 

Canadians are expressing anxiety about the social impact of fake news with 70% reporting that they are concerned that it could impact the outcome of an election.  Similarly, almost 70% of Americans feel fake news and misinformation have greatly affected their confidence in government institutions. Experts warn that it may influence the core functions of the democratic system.  Canadian researchers report that dubious and inflammatory content can undermine the quality of public debate, promote misperceptions, foster greater hostility toward political opponents, and corrode trust in government and journalism.  Research shows that there has been a broad process of “truth decay” resulting in greater disagreement about facts, widespread preferences for personal experience and opinion over fact, and growing distrust in sources of factual information.  

A consequence of political polarization and the prevalence of disinformation on social media makes politics less attractive for people, which can reduce democratic political engagement.  Research with young people reveals that experiences with fake news may be a reason that only one in four puts "a lot" of trust in the information they receive from news organizations.  Social media disinformation has even had fatal consequences globally where people have been killed in mob violence inflamed by rumours spread on instant-messaging platforms, and people have been left unprotected because of health disinformation during outbreaks of deadly diseases.  

If allowed to propagate unchecked, even very little “fake news” can do a huge amount of damage. Research shows that it does not take much “fake news” to prevent consensus from forming on critical public issues.  Given that several studies show that New Brunswick remains below the national average in reading assessments, many New Brunswickers simply do not possess the media or information literacy to accurately assess information they are sharing. Research shows that fake news generates social costs to individuals,  such as feelings of loss or embarrassment due to being ridiculed or shamed by peers. Whether victims  of “fake news” deceptions  are confused,  or end up believing in falsehoods, their ability to  reach consensus will have been disrupted.  In the context of politics, voters who are confused  or believe in falsehoods  are very likely to be in a state of anxiety, and therefore not likely to make well considered  and informed choices at the ballot box.      



  

Misinformation and fake-news campaigns are amplified and circulated through false digital accounts or automated “bots”: artificial tweets, emails, or content on any channel that appears to be real to the average viewer. In a targeted campaign using specific keywords, actors magnify their influence and impact conversations among like-minded clusters of people.  These campaigns can foment discord on hot-button New Brunswick policy issues, including immigration, refugees, and pipelines, possibly impacting social license and election outcomes. In 2019, alert citizens in Bathurst identified bot activity on their local Newschasers social media group containing negative messages about Muslims, Indigenous people, and the LGBTQ community.   

The majority of Canadians support government investment in regulating and censoring fake news but such mechanisms to label or remove “fake news” from social media have faced  serious challenges in effectively identifying what is or is not ‘fake news’ and can be costly if government regulation is needed to provide surveillance, policing, and prosecution.  A more economical and arguably more effective response is for investment in education. Experts suggest that we should focus on how to motivate people to fact check, and how to provide media and digital literacy skills to evaluate information and find trustworthy answers. Public education to help everyone become stronger and more insightful media consumers has been identified as more effective than legislating social media platforms.   

Encouraging communication with people who are dissimilar has been shown to be an effective way to reduce polarization and fact distortion around political issues. When we come together as a community we can share our knowledge and enhance our critical thinking skills so that we won’t be fooled by fake news.