Canada's government shouldn't be in the business of policing 'fake news' by Graeme Gordon

Feb 22, 2017

We can't ignore that the government has a horse in the race here

Source: CBC News

Worried about the supposed scourge of "fake news" taking over the media ecosystem? Don't worry, the Liberal government is aware of the issue, and they're here to help!

Over the last couple of weeks, Canada's government has been sounding the alarm about the growing threat posed by fake news, something that is apparently deserving of federal intervention. In late January, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly put the issue to her Twitter followers, asking: "What role can government play to support credible sources and counter the fake news phenomenon?"

The correct answer should be: none.

Nevertheless, Joly followed up with an appearance on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, where she said she was "proud" her government was "ahead of the curve" in battling fake news and taking a leadership role internationally.

Liberal MP and chair of the standing committee on Canadian heritage Hedy Fry echoed Joly's apparent eagerness to take on fake news, saying, "We saw what happened in the United States. The United States woke everybody up."

"You had people making up stories and putting it out there," she added. "You had people judging a person's character, making a decision about policy based on total fabrication and going out there and voting on that."

The committee's report on digital journalism and the future of media — to be tabled in the spring — is expected to include recommendations on how to tackle fake news.

Overstated influence

There are a number of reasons why Canadians should be concerned about the government's enthusiasm on this file. For one, research on the effects of fake news suggest it's actually not all that influential. A Northwestern University study found, for example, that the reach of fake news was one-tenth that of real news (based on defined criteria of "real" and "fake" news) with online audiences spending the majority of their time on legitimate news websites.

The study also revealed that the consumption of real news spiked in the last month and a half of the presidential campaign, while fake news consumption remained at a constant low level. That finding runs directly contrary to the mainstream narrative about the "spike" in fake news leading up to the U.S. election, a faulty notion that relied largely on the narrow scope of one BuzzFeed article.

Beyond that, Canadians should be wary about a government pledge to intervene here considering that the Liberal government is far from an impartial party when it comes to how Canadians consume news. Indeed, by what objective measure will a government determine which news is fake? If a newspaper reports that the Trudeau government "broke its promise" to run three small $10-billion deficits, and the Trudeau government later claims the promise was more of a vague projection, would the initial report then be considered "fake news?"

For what it's worth, Joly's press secretary has recently backtracked on the minister's comments,saying in a phone interview that, "For the digital platforms, it's for them to decide what action, if any, they want to take. And we will continue in conversations with all actors. But identifying fake news is not the role of the government."

"For us, it's really about advocating for tools and technologies that will be made available for Canadians and Canadian publishers," he added.

This is somewhat misleading, considering the government's past and ongoing interactions with news organizations. Governments of all stripes monitor the media (federal ministers have staff specifically dedicated to following coverage) and try to mitigate negative coverage where possible.

Last June it was reported that the Trudeau government had webpages from Stephen Harper's government deleted from Google's search results (the Liberals say it was done in an effort to keep federal information current). Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister's Office publicly chastised Fox News for leaving up an out-of-date tweet about two suspects being detained in the Quebec mosque attack. Other organizations, including Reuters, had left up similar tweets, but the PMO only called out right-wing Fox News. And then in a question period earlier this month, Joly used her time on the floor to criticize comments made in a Washington Post piece that she deemed "unacceptable."

We can't ignore that the government has a horse in the race here. Whether we choose to believe Joly's earlier comments or those of her press secretary, we all should be highly skeptical about promises to "help" the media fight fake news.

© CBC News