McGill researchers spearhead Canadian Election Misinformation Project

The Media Ecosystem Observatory (MEO), an interdisciplinary research collaboration between McGill University and the University of Toronto, announced the launch of the Canadian Election Misinformation Project on Aug. 18.

The initiative is headed by Taylor Owen, the Beaverbrook Chair in Media, Ethics, and Communications and associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, Peter Loewen, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, Aengus Bridgman, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at McGill, and aims to chart and respond to cases of mis- and disinformation during Canada’s 44th federal election

The goal of the project, according to Chris Ross, a master’s student in the Department of Political Science at McGill and MEO researcher, is to improve understanding of the implications of false and faulty information about Canadian elections.

“There is a particular attention to the online space and how people talk in social media form,” Ross said. “It is all about getting an understanding of what, from that ocean of information, filters its way down into traditional media and what misinformation is present online […] so we have better tools to work to prevent it.”

The project analyzes an array of online discourses, ranging from foreign interference and climate issues to pandemic-related news and provincial vaccine mandates. Ross noted that the pandemic and the election have provided a timely backdrop for the MEO to expand its research efforts.

“The MEO has been writing since the 2019 federal election and, throughout the pandemic, [has] geared a lot of research towards pandemic misinformation online,” Ross said. “Now that we have another election, it is another opportunity to look for misinformation and understand what type of misinformation gets the most clicks.”

According to a viral BuzzFeed News analysis, in the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the most popular fake news stories on Facebook outperformed the top election stories from 19 major news outlets. In an email to //The McGill Tribune//, professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies Carrie Rentschler pointed out that the surge of misinformation in recent elections can be attributed to the speed at which automated systems replicate it.

“There are whole industries organized to produce disinformation, [which] hide the evidence of their work and the people who do it,” Rentschler wrote.

Rentschler advocated for robust research dedicated to analyzing how consumers of news respond to false and misleading information.

“We need research that helps us understand the realities of contemporary information environments,” Rentschler wrote. “Debunking the falsehood of misinformation is not enough. We need to understand why people believe it, but also why they want to believe it.”   

Popular YouTuber David Freiheit, BA ‘02, a litigator representing the People’s Party for the  Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount riding in the 2021 federal election, reflected on what he considers a double standard in the media’s use of the term “misinformation.”

“The label itself typically is one that the government or the mainstream media wants you to use to discredit alternative sources,” said Freiheit, whose VivaFrei YouTube channel reaches in excess of 300,000 subscribers. “Misinformation has always been around, like the National Enquirer, and viral stories that spread misinformation. But then you also get the viral stories in the mainstream media which turn out to be false, they just do not call it misinformation, they call it retractions.”

With the challenging demands of a full-time university schedule, staying on top of every development in the election news cycle borders on overwhelming for many students, explains Paulina Kasak, U3 Arts.

“Students are bombarded with a constant stream of conflicting information and flashy headlines, whether on social media or on campus,” Kasak said. “It makes you feel jaded at times, especially when you do not know who to trust.”

The MEO will be sending out updates via email as the project unfolds. To join the mailing list, visit their registration page.

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