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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Ellis

How good are you at spotting disinformation on social media? Take our quiz!

Disinformation is considered by experts to be one of the top threats facing Canada - and it spreads rapidly on social media. But what is disinformation, and how can we fight back against it?

What is Disinformation?

Disinformation is information that is intentionally misleading. While plenty of disinformation is just false, more sophisticated techniques use something that's true but misrepresented, taken out of context, or rephrased with loaded language to create false impressions or drive emotional responses.

Disinformation is spread by many sources:

  • National governments, especially authoritarian regimes, to cover up crimes, undermine democracies, sway public opinion, and otherwise advance their agendas;

  • Corporations trying to boost revenues, influence policy, or hide pollution and other evils;

  • Political extremists trying to destabilize existing social structures to create an opening for radical new ones;

  • Bots and paid trolls;

  • True believers, typically well-meaning people who fall into conspiracy thinking and become amplifiers for those conspiracies and others like it.

The aim of most modern disinformation is to confuse, distract, and cause distrust. Most disinformation campaigns are not meant to get you to believe any one specific false narrative; they are intended to make it so hard to determine the truth that you give up, and to exacerbate existing conflict fault lines to raise tensions and make compromise and conversation difficult. Researcher Dave Troy refers to these as attacks on social capital - you can read his in-depth analysis of the subject here.

Social Media and Disinformation

Canada is a digitally advanced nation, with nearly total internet coverage across the population. And social media comprises a huge portion of Canadians online diet; of Canada's internet-using population, over 86% have at least one social media account.

Unfortunately, the nature of commercial social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter (sometimes referred to as X), and Instagram make them highly vulnerable to disinformation attacks. These platforms use algorithms to determine what users want to see and serve them that kind of content. These algorithms are typically based on engagement, which is to say how many users like, comment, share, and save a post.

The problem with engagement-based algorithms is that it rewards the most outrageous, controversial, and contentious material - people are more likely to comment on things they dislike or feel strong emotions about. It also makes fact-checking difficult; replying to disinformation with a correction is still engagement, which then boosts the reach of the original (disinformational) post. In fact, disinformation on these platforms thrives on this urge to correct it, because it sparks debates in the comments which increases engagement further, ensuring even more people see the disinformation.

It's easy to come up with an interesting and outrage-inducing story. It's much harder to ensure that such a story is actually true. As a result, fake or misleading stories that are compelling and outrage-inducing spread quickly, but stories that have been carefully researched and present clear facts and evidence are less common and tend to be less engaging.

In other words: disinformation has a huge advantage on algorithmic social media.

And since social media companies make their money from advertising, and their advertising income is based largely on metrics like views and engagement, they have every incentive to reward the disinformation rather than trying to curtail it.

Finally, because social media platforms rely on replicating existing social networks - meaning that social media users typically add friends, relatives, and people they already know to their online network - information received from social media is treated with more credibility than it deserves, because even though it may be coming from a shady source, it's being shared to the end user by their friends, their parents, and other trusted sources.

How to Fight Back

Ultimately, building alternatives to ad-driven social media platforms would create a much better information environment (this is why we recommend using Bluesky or Mastodon instead of Twitter/X). However, those are long-term projects, and the dominant social media platforms benefit from "network effects" - because so many people already use those platforms, ceasing to use them means losing access to all those people, which makes it hard to quit.

But there are ways we can fight back right now even before alternative platforms reach critical mass:

  • "Inoculation" is teaching people about disinformation and helping them learn to recognize it, which has been shown to help people detect and dismiss disinformation.

  • Always check sources and citations before resharing information, especially if it's information that seems too good to be true.

  • Rely on trusted and credible sources that show their work, provide citations, and check their logic. Amplify these credible sources.

  • Build trust in your own network by being transparent, admitting when you make a mistake, and being careful about what you share. A trusting and well-connected community is the best antidote to disinformation attacks.

  • Verify that accounts are real and not trolls before engaging. Remember that troll accounts want you to argue with them; they will use emotional language and personal insults to try to draw you into an argument, which boosts the reach of the post you're arguing on and creates the appearance of further conflict. No amount of evidence will convince or persuade them because they don't care what's true and don't actually believe what they're saying; they just want to make you mad.

Here's the good news: an overwhelming majority of Canadians report being concerned about disinformation and its corrosive effect on our democracy. By working together and getting organized, we can fight back against the disinformation operations and give truth a voice that can't be ignored. That's the mission of Canada Truth: we believe a grassroots, bottom-up approach to challenging disinformation is the most powerful defense against disinformation. Think of us as democracy's immune system. If you're ready to lend a hand, get involved today!

Take our Disinformation Pop Quiz today and find out how good you are at spotting disinformation online!

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