By David Scholz, APR
Executive Vice-President, Office Directors Toronto Office, Leger
More than two-thirds of Canadians feel disinformation is a threat to our democracy (72%), undermines our election process (71%) and increases the polarization of our political parties (69%). As well, 76 percent of Canadians say that much disinformation exists about the COVID vaccines. These are results from our recent study where Leger partnered with McMaster University’s Master of Communications Management program and the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) to replicate a US IPR study.
Disinformation is the deliberate spread of misleading or biased information. The important point is that it is deliberate and is intended to be misleading or biased. Misinformation also exists; however, it is spread without the sender having harmful intentions. Unfortunately, this can become disinformation if people deliberately continue its spread for malicious reasons. Based on previous IPR studies, disinformation is increasingly a major problem in the U.S. and our study showed some concerning numbers in Canada.
As communicators this is important information for us to know. Who Canadians trust and distrust is critical knowledge to determining the right medium for our communications. Although, even in the right medium, we are losing contact with Canadians. Forty percent of Canadians say that encountering disinformation makes them feel anxious or stressed and a quarter of Canadians (28%) are avoiding media because of disinformation.
In Canada, our top 5 most trusted sources for information include friends, family, local broadcast news, people like me and CBC. Our top 5 distrusted sources are the Russian and Chinese governments, celebrities, Facebook and TikTok. Canadians believe that most disinformation comes from Facebook (77% of Canadians believe this), followed by the Russian government (73%), political activist parties (72%) and politicians (67%).
So, while we see politicians as being leaders in promoting disinformation, we also look to them and all levels of government to help combat disinformation. Eight in ten Canadians feel some level of government should be responsible for fighting disinformation, including 82 percent who feel politicians should solve this issue and 83 percent who point to the Prime Minister to fix it. While we think government and politicians should be combatting it, we do not think the politicians are currently doing a very good job of it. Only 22 percent of Canadians feel politicians are effective at curbing disinformation. Canadians also feel our media and journalists should be combatting disinformation but these were mentioned by no more than half of Canadians as doing a good job. Interesting, the one group that does the best at combatting disinformation is the one labeled “people like me.” Half of the Canadian population (51%) feel this group does a good job at combatting disinformation.
This is the conundrum that we are in. One of the most trusted sources we have is “people like me.” This is also the group that we believe fights disinformation. Unfortunately, this means we are in “echo chambers” where misinformation can spread quicker and lead to the potential for disinformation to spread.
To demonstrate this, we asked questions around the effectiveness of wearing masks during the pandemic. Most Canadians agree that disinformation can extend the length of the pandemic (66%); however, what constitutes disinformation is up for debate. Most Canadians (68%) agree with the statement “wearing a mask prevents the spread of COVID-19.” At the same time, 22 percent of Canadians agree with the statement “wearing a mask does not prevent the spread of COVID-19.” When we look across a series of questions focused on COVID we see polarized results regionally across Canada and across political party affiliations. So while we do not have the polarization of political beliefs and the resultant effects on policy decisions as they do in the US, we do have some significant differences regionally and politically here in Canada. Locally, we are listening and trusting “people like me;” however, people like me might not be the best source.
When confronted with disinformation, most Canadians (76%) are at least somewhat confident that they can identify what is disinformation and what is not, but only 19 percent say they are very confident in this ability. Perhaps this is why only 37 percent of Canadians feel disinformation can be controlled.
The goal of controlling disinformation starts with educating people on what is disinformation and how to spot it. Dr. Tina McCorkindale from the IPR published a checklist of 10 ways to help people reduce the spread of disinformation by thinking before they share the information.
- Who is the author or source
- How current is the source
- Who shared the post
- Does the headline match the content
- Does it create distrust or sow division
- How does it make me feel
- What is the evidence
- Could it be a joke
- Have I verified it
- Do I know enough
I highly encourage readers to go to www.instituteforpr.org
to read the explanations for each checklist point. This is an important topic for our industry. We should ensure that we are not passing on misinformation and helping those who want to sow disinformation. For more information on this research, please visit www.leger360.com
for the whole Disinformation in Canada report which will be published early December.