Examining and regulating intentional disinformation online

“Society tolerates a lot of misinformation as we always have, but the internet and social media can act as a magnifier so that it gets blown up until it almost seems like it is true, and people believe those things that aren’t true are true,” says the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and co-chair of the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression.

The Commission – consisting of nine Canadian experts in law, media, technology, civics and politics – will examine the meaning of democratic expression online, and how, if at all, it should be regulated. McLachlin – who served as the Chief Justice from 2000 until her retirement in 2017 – says that the growing adoption of social media platforms in recent decades has brought unique challenges to the spread of disinformation.

The Commission released the first of its three reports in January 2021 and is set to release the second and third in January and March 2022 respectively. The project is the first instance in Canadian history where citizens and experts convened to study the topic of democratic expression online.

It will examine how to increase the transparency and accountability of social media platforms for Canadians. The Citizens’ Assembly, a group of 42 randomly selected Canadians representing all provinces and territories, will explore the question: should legal or other consequences be enforced for those who intentionally spread disinformation online to cause harm, and if so, what should the consequences amount to?

McLachlin indicates that it can be challenging for users of social media platforms to find contrasting views, as opposed to other forms of media. “You don’t always have different views on one website. Typically, one hears more of a view until it gets enforced to the point where that is all the person thinks is true, and they don’t see the other perspectives,” she points out

“People often stick to certain sites and so they don’t get contrary views, unlike, for example, the newspaper, which will have the editorial saying one thing and you have an op-ed writer or a letter to the editor saying that it is all wrong, allowing the reader to have it all on one page,” she says.

Additionally, McLachlin recognizes the complexity of regulating intentional disinformation online due to its contention with fundamental Canadian values.

“It’s a complex situation – you have many conflicting values. You have freedom of expression which is constitutionally enshrined and very important to our democratic functioning, and we live in a society where we have always tolerated contrary views since it allows for criticism, open attitudes and advancement,” she explains.

Despite the importance of these values, McLachlin says that it needs to be balanced with protecting Canadian society from harm.

The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. | Photo courtesy of Vancouver Foundation

“We have to worry about what can come of concentrations of information that are unallayed by other views, and the harms that can be caused—we know there have been attempts to interfere with elections and spread misinformation that can be harmful,” she says. “We must, like many other democracies, look carefully at how we can mitigate some of these harms in social media.”

When asked about how regular citizens can help respond to the problem of disinformation online, McLachlin emphasizes the importance of educating the public to develop a culture of inquiry.

“I think a huge amount of user control and education is really important. People, as they gain sophistication with technology, will realize that some of the messages that are sent are being manipulated by algorithms or other groups,” she says. “Ordinary citizens can help with that – they can talk about it, they can say ‘don’t believe everything you see and check it out’ and develop a culture of inquiry and a bit of skepticism.”

In addition, McLachlin highlights some techniques to cultivate a healthy skepticism.

“Rather than following the simplistic black-and-white answer, the true believer answer, or what the latest wokeism idea is, ask a few questions and make your mind up after you’ve looked at other views,” she says. “If your ideas are good and strong, they can stand up to them. You can base the fact that somebody doesn’t say the same thing and say you don’t agree with it, but at least you’ve examined it, and then you are more confident in your own ideas, right?”

For more information about the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression, visit here: https://ppforum.ca/project/demx