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Real news is where it’s at

All things considered, it wasn’t the most auspicious start to what is now near universally, if still unofficially, considered to be the pre-election pre-show for the upcoming federal election.

No sooner had Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould unveiled her government’s plan to “safeguard” — her word, which was presumably chosen advisedly — the upcoming vote from unscrupulous outside saboteurs than the greater Canadian political punditariat  erupted into instantaneously furious debate over how, precisely, they were planning to carry out one particular element of that strategy: namely, combatting the spread of “misinformation” — or, as it’s now more commonly known, “fake news” — via online and social media platforms.

It wasn’t so much that anyone objects, at least publicly, to the suggestion that perhaps something could be done to stem the flood of fact-free political propaganda masquerading as unbiased news coverage that swamped the Facebook feeds of impressionable U.S. voters during their most recent democratic go-round. 

Where it gets tricky is — well, basically immediately after that point, as it quickly becomes apparent that there’s not just a glaring lack of consensus on what constitutes “fake news.” Shockingly, people tend to place the most faith in stories and sources that reaffirm their existing inclinations.

As it turns out, though, there’s even less agreement on whether it should be the government leading the charge in the first place or — among those who do see a role for the state in countering misinformation and “fake news” — whether the approach proposed by this particular government would have any discernable effect at all.

Let’s start with the skeptics, whose contributions to the conversation can be easily picked out by the frequent use — and, arguably, overuse — of the word “Orwellian,” who are, understandably, unsettled by the idea of a near future in which a virtual army of faceless civil servants is dispatched by the state to seek out and destroy any and all news items deemed insufficiently in line with the facts as established by the current regime.

On the plus side, there’s absolutely no indication that Gould or anyone else has any intention of heading anywhere near, let alone down, that dystopian path.

Quite the opposite, in fact, which is why there’s also a sizeable clutch of critics that see the newly released suite of democratic protective measures as woefully insufficient.

Rather than hold social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube directly accountable for co-ordinated, deliberate disinformation campaigns, including those funded by foreign states and other malevolent outside actors, the government is, at least at press time, prepared to sit back and “expect” those companies to “take concrete actions to . . . [promote] transparency, authenticity and integrity on their platforms.”

For her part, Gould has stated repeatedly that there are “discussions” underway on how, exactly, that could be accomplished, and the most recent overhaul of the federal election rulebook did boost disclosure requirements for the sponsors of online political advertising during the writ.

But as far as establishing a frontline for first response on fake news, it appears that the Liberals are prepared to put their trust in both the willingness and capacity of Canadians to use their critical thinking skills to perform spot fact checks on potentially misleading online content.

“Get informed from a diversity of sources,” the government suggests in an infographic pointedly headlined “We all have a role to play in protecting our democracy.”

“Think before you share.”

Of course, if it were that simple and straightforward, the term “fake news” wouldn’t have entered the global lexicon, but give the government credit for this, at least: Anyone who actually takes the time to dig into the fine print of the government’s suggested course of action in dealing with such propaganda will find little proof of the conspiracy theories already swirling about how Justin Trudeau wants to seize control of your news feed.

The trick, presumably, will be getting them — and all of us — to do just that, on a regular basis, with pretty much everything we see, hear and read between now and Oct. 21.

Kady O’Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.

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