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No country for fake news

Canadian political news found “relatively clean” of misinformation, according to the Digital Democracy Project
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JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY
JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

With ‘fake news’ and hyper-partisanship now seemingly the norm south of the border, experts closer to home studying the ebbs and flows of Canadian political streams are watching for signs of similar developments. As it turns out, the results are encouraging.

In the months running up to Canada’s October 21 federal election, researchers at the Digital Democracy Project have been observing how Canadians consume media and how such consumption interacts with their politics.

The project is managed by the Public Policy Forum — an independent think tank — and includes academics from universities across Canada.

U of T affiliated participants include the project’s Head of the Survey Analysis Team Dr. Peter Loewen, a professor at U of T’s Department of Political Science; Lead Survey Analyst Dr. Eric Merkley, a postdoctoral fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy; and Digital Democracy Fellow Stephanie MacLellan, who graduated with a Master of Global Affairs from the Munk School in 2016.

The findings of the project have been released as research memos, which are available for reading on its website. The Varsity highlighted its major findings below.

“Media, Knowledge and Misinformation”

In the project’s first memo, released on August 8, researchers surveyed Canadians and determined that the public is most likely to receive news from traditional, mainstream sources.

CBC News was the leading outlet, with 42 per cent of participants reportedly consuming CBC reporting in the past week, followed closely by televised CTV News in second place, at 41 per cent of participants.

This consumption of CBC and CTV reporting was uniform regardless of declared party affiliation, although Progressive Conservative (PC) Party supporters held a slight preference for CTV over the CBC.

In comparison, the explicitly right-wing news site Rebel Media was reportedly read by 22 per cent of PC supporters in the last week, while explicitly left-wing news site Rabble.ca was read by 10 per cent of New Democratic Party (NDP) supporters in the past week.

“The Climate Change Conundrum”

The second research memo was published on August 29, and examined which issues matter most to Canadians.

A survey found that supporters of the Liberal Party were most likely to hold health care as the most important issue of the federal election. The economy and the environment were not far behind, taking the second and third place of importance, respectively.

In contrast, PC supporters were overwhelmingly likely to prioritize the economy, with immigration and refugee issues and taxes following. Finally, NDP supporters were most likely to prioritize the environment, with health care and the economy coming after.

“Polarization and its Discontents”

In the third research memo, published on September 12, the project tackled the issue of political polarization. The memo differentiates between two different types of polarization.

The first type, affective polarization, is defined as the dislike of an individual or party due to their membership in a group in opposition to one’s own. By contrast, ideological polarization is the dislike of an individual or party due to the policies they support, rather than their membership.

Researchers found evidence of affective polarization among the Canadian populace. However, the memo concluded that this polarization did not seem to arise from ‘echo chambers’ — environments where people encounter only views similar to their own — due to the fairly uniform media that Canadians consume as reported in the first memo.

“Talking Past Each Other on Immigration”

The fourth research memo from September 26 addressed the rise of populist nativist politics in the Western world and its effects on immigration issues.

While the memo noted the rise of the nativist People’s Party of Canada, it also reported that Canadians were unlikely to be zealous in their views on immigration, and that they are open to changing their opinions when addressed with facts.

In particular, the memo described two trials in which respondents were asked to report on their attitudes towards immigration. In one trial, a 2018 Conference Board of Canada report detailing the positive impact of immigration on the economy was given to respondents to read beforehand. Of the respondents who read the report, 63 per cent responded with positive attitudes toward immigration, compared to the 57 per cent of respondents who had not read the report.

“Fact-Checking, Blackface and the Media”

In the fifth research memo, published on October 3, researchers reported the public’s attitude toward fact-checking in journalism. It was found that 73 per cent of Canadians responded with a desire to see more fact-checking, with equal support among left-leaning and right-leaning voters.

The memo also covered the topic of Trudeau’s brownface and blackface scandal. Observations of social media trends found that despite widespread discourse on the day the scandal was reported, interest in the incident rapidly declined on both social and traditional media by the third day.

“Political Advertising on Facebook”

The most recent research memo, published on October 10, covered partisan expenditure on Facebook ads during the campaign period. Researchers found that the Liberal Party had spent slightly over $1 million on ads between September 11 and October 4, with the Conservative Party spending $640,000 and the NDP spending $230,000 during the same period.

Out of non-party actors, the right wing organisation Canada Proud spent the most during the same period, buying $123,000 worth of Facebook ads. For comparison, the second largest non-party spender was the anti-Conservative Party organisation North99, which spent $29,000 on Facebook ads during the period.

What comes next?

Following the conclusion of the federal election, the project is preparing to release a final, comprehensive report next March.

“A big part of the project has been gathering all kinds of data that we haven’t had a chance to report on week-to-week during the campaign — including YouTube and Reddit content as well as more comprehensive Facebook data,” wrote MacLellan to The Varsity. “The next few months will be spent analyzing those findings.”

In the meantime, the released research memos indicate that despite some concerns, ‘fake news’ is not a particularly Canadian problem. Project researchers still emphasize that it’s important to pay attention to what you pay attention to.

“One thing that I think is an important takeaway from our project is that some of what we think we know about the relationship between the media and citizens is the result of a lazy interpolation of trends in the United States to the Canadian context,” wrote Merkley to The Varsity.

“Orchestrated misinformation isn’t necessary for citizens to be misinformed about politics.”