Researchers find little evidence of fake messaging during federal campaign

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OTTAWA — Researchers combing through millions of social-media posts during the federal election campaign say relatively little disinformation has been swirling through cyberspace.

The preliminary findings come from the Digital Democracy Project, a joint initiative led by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum and the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.

It is examining the media ecosystem by monitoring digital and social media and carrying out surveys.

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The researchers say social-media activity around Canadian politics has surged during the campaign, rising about 800 per cent on Twitter and 250 per cent on public Facebook posts.

Taylor Owen, a professor at the Max Bell School, says examples of false or misleading content have not circulated as far as people might have expected during the campaign.

He says one likely reason is the recently enacted federal legislation that limited the ability of foreign actors to spend freely on digital advertising and put curbs on third parties, helping Canada avoid “the Wild West of disinformation” seen in the United States.

“I think that’s worth keeping in mind as part of this puzzle here, as we report on it and talk about it,” Owen said.

“We are allowed to do what we are allowed to do in elections because of the regulations that are put in place, and it’s possible that we’ve limited some of the nefarious behaviour we’ve seen in other elections.”

The researchers plan a final report in a few months that will look at the issue in more detail.

People should be heartened by the comparatively low levels of fake messaging in the campaign, said Peter Loewen, a University of Toronto political scientist leading the survey analysis team.

But he quickly added: “It’s not clear that media consumption and exposure to traditional media is helping things in our democracy.”

Among the project’s other new findings:

— Even when exposed to news coverage from a variety of perspectives, audiences are still more likely to choose content that supports their political views;

— Exposure to politicized messaging tends to harden views. Canadians are inclined to take stronger positions on key electoral issues when presented with statements aligned with their views, but also when they are exposed to both sides of an argument;

— As partisanship increases, so does participation in politics, with the most politically active Canadians also being the most partisan.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2019.

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press

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