Campaigns of Disinformation

The ability to think critically has made its way to the forefront of necessary skills. This kind of deeper thinking is a vital component to a teacher’s lesson, and there has been a push among ministries of education to promote it. Despite its obvious need, these are skills slowly honed over a student’s life, and they don’t come easily. If there is a failure to cultivate critical thinking, students are often at a disadvantage going forward academically. It also makes them susceptible to the orchestrated campaigns of disinformation one so readily sees propagated on social media.

Or alternate facts.

These kinds of buzzwords conjure a mental image of American politics. One might find a few correlations between the kinds of education systems in America, and the success of fake news among the voting public. Populist politics certainly requires herds of voters to turn off critical thinking abilities in order to have a modicum of success.

While I was in Korea, I saw the rise of populism in various Western democracies. As somewhat of an outsider peering in, it offered me an interesting perspective on the entire phenomenon. I’ll admit to underestimating the success it would have, or perhaps I overestimated society’s collective ability to repel it.

In any case, it forced me to examine teachers’ role in all this. Discussing society and politics is part of my mandate as a teacher with a history teachable (what we call a subject a teacher specializes in, in Ontario). For some, discussing these topics gets tricky. I believe responsible teachers should leave their political party affiliations at the door while donning their teacher’s cap. Being paragons of neutrality is tough in political discussions, but leaning too heavily on a particular political party will lead to influencing student thought. If instilling critical thinking skills is of paramount importance, then students need to be able to arrive at conclusions on their own. Undue influence from a teacher can easily undo all that, and hurt students’ capacity for critical thought.

Now disinformation, on the scale we are seeing in recent years, appears to be a heavy influencer among the far-right. Traditionally, the far-right, with its demagogic tendencies and populist politics, has not been a viable player on the Canadian political scene. One does not have to come across as a zealot to combat disinformation from these sources. To shore up students’ critical thinking abilities against these kinds of social media campaigns, arguments rooted in reality and facts is the only route to take.

Now the question one might ask is: is this actually a problem in Canada?

In short: yes.

By the purest of happenstance, I stumbled upon a prime example over the weekend. While on my stroll downtown, I noticed a rally on Parliament Hill. Upon closer inspection, it turned to be two rallies. The larger rally took place in front of the steps of Parliament, and was speaking out against the government’s treatment of Lyme disease (or its lack of appropriate treatment). The smaller rally was on the lawn, and had dozens of people speaking out against the alleged oppression of free speech in Canada.

This blog post will look at the latter rally.

Video shot by myself of the rally participants

The rally in question was organized to vent displeasure towards the Federal Government. It was poorly attended, and as I drew closer, I could see why. It was a collection of fringe groups decrying immigration, foreigners, and a particular Abrahamic religion. In their midst, I found the typical fascists one would expect to find at these gatherings, with their distinctive taste in fashion, and questionable flag design. They were shouting at people and hoping to elicit a reaction, but their theatrics confused tourist groups who snapped pictures in bemusement.

Now, that is my take on the event. If you’re interested in seeing how it was reported by the far-right’s media, you can see that here. For those not interested in the clicking on the link, they claim 5,000 people took part. The Ottawa Citizen found that number to be more than a bit off, and had this to say, including a photo of the crowd size (that’s in line with my video). iPolitics and BuzzFeed also chimed in.

Upon returning home, I took to Twitter to see if I could find reference to the rally. Discouragingly enough, I saw people claiming to have participated in the march and stating that 5,000 people did in fact show up in solidarity. After observing incidents like this from abroad, it was a bit surreal to find myself in the middle of a campaign of disinformation. The video I embedded above shows how many people showed up, so the lie about thousands of people being there looks ridiculous. The people in their Twitter echochamber were obviously desperate to convince others they had more support than they actually had, and by my estimation it worked. There was backslapping over the supposed 5,000 marchers, and calls of ridicule for mainstream media sources who chose to ignore a massive march (that obviously never took place). The same event took place in other Canadian cities, so it was orchestrated to involve a million Canadians, but it did not reach such lofty ambitions.

It’s not the fact that these people were unsuccessful in securing a million Canadians, or 5,000 in Ottawa. It’s the blatant discrediting of reality to support a narrative far removed from such trappings. This is how it began in the US, while I was in Korea, and I can see it happening in Canada.

Social media has provided an amplification for lies to easily spread. Media Literacy is a component of the Ontario curriculum, and this gives teachers the impetus to hone students’ critical thinking skills. Being able to identify reliable sources of information, and the proper vetting of facts, is something students need in this 21st century world. Examining stories that are obviously wrong, would make for an activity many students would sink their teeth into. Students with the ability to evaluate media sources are students who become citizens capable of making informed choices.