If journalism in Canada is to survive in a manner that’s of service to the public, the disinformation racket has to be shut down.
by Davide Mastracci
Journalism in Canada has suffered countless setbacks over the past decade.
Postmedia has tightened its grip on the industry, scooping up publications and chains, imposing its toxic ideology on them, and then stripping them for parts to pay off its owners. The industry has shrunk significantly, with news outlets across the country cutting staff, reducing publishing volume, moving online and, at the end of the road, shutting down entirely. Most remaining publications, ranging from major corporate outlets to independent alternatives, rely in part on money from the government and/or funding from Big Tech corporations.
The problems unfortunately aren’t limited to the business side. Since late-2016, journalism in Canada has been obsessed with the threat that disinformation from foreign actors allegedly poses. And yet, this shift has little to do with any changes in the real world, is disconnected from what readers care about, and serves journalists more than their audiences, all the while tapping into decades of anti-communist propaganda and Cold War rhetoric, holding Canada’s enemies to standards never applied to the government at home or to allies.
Disinformation journalism is one of the most toxic editorial developments in the media. Here’s where it came from, the problems with it and why we need to move past it.
In November 2016, Donald Trump stunned much of the world by defeating Hillary Clinton in the United States presidential election. Many people in North America reeled in shock at the result, and desperately searched for answers as to how it came to be. Shortly after, an explanation was put forward that was convenient for anyone not willing to take a hard look at the U.S.: Russian interference. A popular allegation made against Russia was that it had used disinformation (false information deliberately spread for political purposes) to sway some Americans into voting for Trump, which ultimately allowed him to prevail. As a result, disinformation (what it is, what impact it has had, who is behind it, how to spot it, how it can be fought, etc.) emerged as a buzzword and focus of media and politicians alike.
Take The New York Times: from 2008 to 2015, the word “disinformation” was mentioned an average of 21 times per year in the paper’s print edition. Once the claim of Russian interference began circulating, use of the word “disinformation” at the paper quickly multiplied.
And like so much else of what’s discussed in the U.S., the conversation was picked up in Canada as well. Mentions of “disinformation” in the Canadian Newsstream database skyrocketed from 2016 onward. Taken together, there were about 13,000 mentions of the word “disinformation” in Canadian newspapers in this seven-year period. This was significantly more than the 2000s (2,323), 1990s (1,894) and 1980s (813).
The issue goes beyond mere media mentions, however, and is apparent in journalistic organizations in Canada. For example, Canada’s major journalist advocacy group, the Canadian Association of Journalists, launched a “misinformation training program” in early 2022 with the intent of providing “training for post-secondary students in every province and territory on disinformation and misinformation.” It held 13 sessions in 2022 alone, featuring some senior journalists as instructors. Journalism For Human Rights has launched several disinformation-themed programs. In 2019, the “Fighting Disinformation through Strengthened Media and Citizen Preparedness in Canada” project was launched to “train both working journalists and the general public in strategies to recognize, track and expose disinformation campaigns on social media.” They boasted that they planned to work with 300 journalists for the project. These efforts were continued with the “Combating Misinformation Project” (2020) and the Misinformation Project (2021). Toronto Metropolitan University and Carleton University, two major journalism schools in Canada, also hopped on the trend. Other schools joined in as well.
Disinformation reporters often see themselves as holding the powerful to account in a battle for truth and democracy. They certainly aren’t the only journalists with grandiose visions of the work they do that are largely out of touch with reality. However, in their case, their governments are happy to support them and the work they do in many ways, including politically, ideologically, and often materially, sometimes even explicitly identifying them as partners in their geopolitical aims.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2022 statement on World Press Freedom Day is a telling example. Trudeau states,
“In the age of disinformation and misinformation, independent, fact-based reporting is vital. We must all come together to support the work of journalists and double down in the fight against disinformation.”
Trudeau explicitly identifies journalists as partners in the government’s campaign to combat disinformation, focusing exclusively on this aspect of the industry as opposed to any of the far more important ones. He also mentions Russia as a specific enemy to combat. This is by no means a unique statement, instead being an accurate summation of much of his praise of journalists. His identification of journalists as partners is also not unilateral, with, for example, Journalism For Human Rights identifying a 2019 disinformation project of theirs as a “response to the Government of Canada’s plan to safeguard our democratic processes from threats of interference.”
Trudeau’s statement identifies two government programs in particular as “addressing the challenges and the spread of disinformation online”: the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) and the Digital Citizen Initiative (DCI). In June 2018, the G7 launched the RRM, which Canada, president of the group at the time, describes as “an initiative to strengthen coordination across the G7 in identifying, preventing and responding to threats to G7 democracies.” The government announced that the RRM’s coordination unit would work closely with federal departments, including the Communications Security Establishment and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Canada’s specific branch of the RRM would also monitor “the digital information environment for foreign state-sponsored disinformation,” a project which it said needed “a truly whole-of-society approach” including the work of media organizations. In his 2022 statement, Trudeau noted that the government was “providing $13.4 million over five years to bolster the [RRM],” with the 2022 budget framing it as part of an effort “to push back against the forces that challenge the rules-based international order,” namely Russia.
The DCI, meanwhile, is “a multi-component strategy that aims to support democracy and social inclusion in Canada by building citizen resilience against online disinformation and building partnerships to support a healthy information ecosystem.” The government notes that in 2019-2020 “as part of Canada’s approach to protecting its democracy, Canadian Heritage contributed $7 million over 9 months to 23 projects delivered by Canadian civil society stakeholders that strengthened citizens’ critical thinking about online disinformation, their ability to be more resilient against online disinformation, as well as their ability to get involved in democratic processes.” These projects included funding to several media organizations for disinformation efforts, such as the Canadian News Media Association ($484,300), Journalists for Human Rights ($250,691), Magazines Canada ($63,000) and New Canadian Media ($66,517).
The DCI, through a $2.5 million funding agreement over the course of four years, also aided the Public Policy Forum (PPF)’s Digital Democracy Project, which was “a multi-year project to analyze and respond to the increasing amounts of disinformation and hate in the digital public sphere.” The PPF notes that in May 2019, they hosted a media workshop on disinformation that “brought together approx. 75 participants, including 50 Canadian journalists representing traditional and digital newsrooms from across Canada.” They add,
“Journalists were introduced to the scale of the disinformation challenge, the impact it has had on previous elections (incl. in Brazil and Europe), and global best practices. Following the workshop, PPF established and coordinated a network of journalists with which to communicate the findings from phase two.”
Additionally, the 2022 federal budget included providing
“$10 million over five years, starting in 2022-23, with $2 million ongoing for the Privy Council Office to coordinate, develop, and implement government-wide measures designed to combat disinformation and protect our democracy.”
Also that year, the government announced “the launch of a special, targeted call for proposals totalling $2.5 million to fund initiatives that help people identify misinformation and disinformation online,” elsewhere specifically naming Russia.
The examples go on, and make it clear that both government and media treat disinformation with a similar level of importance, frame it in a similar way, and to some extent see each other as partners in a similar fight (with the government willing to put up money as proof). This is an abandonment of what journalists should be doing. So why are they doing it?
Why Journalists Love It
Part of the popularity of disinformation journalism for journalists themselves, newsrooms as a whole and media organizations, comes as a result of material need. As outlined at the beginning of this piece, most news outlets rely to some extent on financial aid from the government for existence in a variety of forms, including tax credits and being designated as “qualified Canadian journalism organizations.” Simultaneously, the government has expressed an interest in supporting journalism that supposedly fights disinformation, and has dedicated an incredible sum of money to journalism in general, amounting to more than $700 million since 2018 for a variety of publications. As such, there’s a vested interest in tailoring journalism to meet what the government is looking for, particularly if jobs, newsrooms and entire companies depend upon it.
Looking beyond the business case, disinformation journalism is attractive to journalists partly because it offers a sense of purpose. Legacy media no longer has a near-exclusive hold on readers, and it’s easier than ever to find a variety of news sources with varying perspectives and approaches. Instead of seeing this as a net positive, disinformation reporting allows journalists to point to it as a problem and hold themselves up as a solution. Their job is no longer to write about what’s going on, but to filter out what they deem to be illegitimate for readers. This has the function of reinforcing the role of legacy media, finding a purpose in the industry (the only “legitimate” source of information you can trust happens to be the sorts of places they work at) and trying to repair relations with readers.
The approach, however, has been a failure. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, journalism in Canada has been hitting new lows in recent years with regard to its financial state. Things are also looking bad in terms of its perception among Canadians. A 2022 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that trust in Canadian media from readers had dropped to its lowest point since 2016 (around when the disinformation craze started). At the time, about 55 per cent of respondents said they “trust most news, most of the time.” In 2022, just 42 per cent of respondents said the same.
Interestingly, an article from The Conversation about this report claimed it was especially important due to governments becoming “increasingly active in regulating digital media ecosystems and supporting local journalism to protect democracies from disinformation and misinformation” and the “Russian invasion of Ukraine [and the resulting] rampant misinformation.” The article adds:
“During this time of disruption and transformation, surveys like the Digital News Report contribute to our understanding of the relevance and legitimacy of professional news sources from the public’s point of view.”
The Conversation article portrays the decline in trust readers have in the media as being a result of more dis/misinformation in news outlets that readers are identifying and responding to. Another explanation is that the media’s obsession with dis/misinformation is actually playing a role in alienating readers. Part of that is due to the patronizing attitude that has come with disinformation journalism — including that it has increasingly focused on smearing dissenting opinions rather than exposing empirical falsehoods — and a misidentification of how reporters can serve readers. This doesn’t mean there’s no value in legacy media, or that journalists don’t have anything to offer to any readers. It does mean that investing in disinformation journalism has been a mistake.
Finally, there are the true believers, who genuinely perceive the problems at home as coming from abroad, who see these issues as arising due to the spread of lies or inaccurate information and who think that merely debunking or getting to the root of these campaigns will be of great benefit to society at large. They take their interest in disinformation as a marker of its importance, and their focus on it as an inherent sign of reader interest. They propagate a liberal understanding of the world and how things work, deployed in service of Western foreign policy objectives. For them, disinformation journalism is a natural fit.
Regardless of their motivation for producing disinformation journalism, journalists and newsrooms as a whole are doing a disservice to readers.
In January, in response to a company laying off journalists, the Canadian Association of Journalists tweeted, “We are disappointed to hear that Overstory has laid off its staff at the Capital Daily. Local news and journalism play an important part in keeping communities informed amidst a disinformation crisis.”
Local journalism is, at its best, valuable for so many reasons. The fact that CAJ failed to list any of them, instead focusing on the fad of disinformation reporting, is a sign of a broader shift away from the sort of journalism that matters to people.
Does supposed Russian disinformation hurt people in their day to day lives? Is that what they go to sleep at night worried about? When they get evicted from their homes or stop dreaming of ever owning one, is it because of disinformation? When their friends die from drug poisoning, was it disinformation that killed them? Is disinformation responsible for the abysmal public transportation they rely on to get to jobs where they are underpaid and working for people and places that can dodge getting taxed with impunity? When they’re sick and go to an emergency room, is disinformation responsible for the astonishing wait times they have to suffer through, if the emergency room is even open in the first place? When they can’t find a family doctor, is it because disinformation consumed all of them?
The examples go on. Disinformation has a negligible impact on the lives of the vast majority of people, and by focusing efforts on it, journalists are missing out on tackling the issues and stories that do matter. Focusing on these issues could help lead to real public change, rebuild trust with readers and actually get to the root of the social issues that make supposed disinformation so attractive to some people. Instead, they fixate on a hobby horse, and at the same time regurgitate old Cold War tropes for a modern era, working in line with the government in a period where it supports a war bringing us closer to nuclear catastrophe than at any point in decades.
If journalism in Canada is to survive in a manner that’s of interest and service to the general public, the disinformation racket has to be shut down.
The article was first published by the Maple.
Davide Mastracci is the opinion editor at The Maple. He was previously the managing editor at Passage.
Voices & Bridges publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive discussion and debate on important issues. Views represented in the articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the V&B.