Canadian fact-checkers are pleasantly surprised by the small amount of false electoral content

October 7, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Canadians will elect a new Parliament in two weeks. The incumbent Liberals, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will attempt to retain their majority Oct. 21 against the rival Conservative and New Democratic parties.

Fact-checkers have been pleasantly surprised: Besides some French hoaxes and a few memes that carry misinformation, there hasn’t been a deluge of original false content spreading on digital platforms.

“It’s not the avalanche we thought it would be,” said Eve Beaudin, the Quebec-based reporter who maintains Rumor Detector (Détecteur de rumeurs), a fact-checking website created by the media non-profit Agence Science-Presse.

“(Outside of election season), there’s generally lots of misinformation related to energy issues, some on climate change. And we always have false claims about immigration, health and economics,” she told the IFCN.

But so far, elections haven’t changed that in a meaningful way.

Three weeks ago, Beaudin’s team at Agence Science-Presse launched a small-scale, unfunded project to run a Facebook page titled “Electoral campaign: Who’s telling the truth?” (Campagne électorale: Qui dit vrai?) that would keep track of all fact-checks related to the elections. So far, Beaudin said, the team hasn’t had as much misinformation and fact-checking to keep up with as they’d foreseen.

Are Canadians too polite to spread misinformation?

Maybe not. Beaudin said she can’t explain what is behind the lack of false news, though she cited the high levels of media trust and the low level of political polarization as potential factors.

Two other Quebec-based journalists, Jeff Yates of the fact-checking platform the Décrypteurs and Camille Lopez, a freelancer who regularly contributes to the French-language magazine L’actualité, confirmed that what they’d seen in the Canadian campaign was a rise in misleading memes, deceptively edited quotes or videos and the resurfacing of old hoaxes — nothing as big as they thought it could be.

“What I’ve seen is a lot of cherry picking,” Lopez said in an email to the IFCN. “Far-right bloggers will take a real story, highlight the parts that compliments their own narrative or ideology and completely ignore the parts that don’t.

“And that brings me to what I’ve seen the most: memes.”

Canada loves misinformation memes

Since memes allow people to strip a story down to a bare minimum of just a few words, Lopez said, “It’s the best tool to share a one-sided narrative.”

Lopez said she has seen a slight increase in misinformation-filled memes over the last few weeks, since the electoral campaign started.

Trudeau has been a frequent target for these kinds of images, and some of his speeches have also been manipulated into misleading videos that are rapidly posted on social media.

Yates, of the Décrypteurs, which recently launched a fact-checking television series, pointed out one instance in which the end of Trudeu’s speech from Canada’s Press Gallery Dinner in early September was cut off to make it seem as though the prime minister was admitting to having purchased control of the media.

“It’s one of the biggest pieces of misinformation we’ve seen in the election so far,” Yates told the IFCN. “They took his words out of context to make it seem like he was thanking the news media for the awesome coverage he was getting.”

In November of last year, the Canadian federal government announced it would distribute $595 million to help the country’s media sector over the course of the next five years.

According to the Globe and Mail, the decision “divided Canada’s media community and sparked heated political debate,” with Conservatives taking a stand against it.

Throughout the campaign, Yates said that memes, cleverly edited quotes and conspiracy theories have been driving the false narrative that the financial package was arranged by Trudeau and his party to gain favorable news coverage and ensure a victory in the upcoming election.

Importing hoaxes from abroad

One conspiracy theory related to the media sector aid that surprised Yates was the claim that the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros was secretly running Canadian media.

“If you’re American or European, you could be forgiven for falling for that claim,” he said. “But in Canada, that isn’t really the case. Trudeau has met with Soros just a handful of times, but this idea that Soros owns the media has clearly been filtered through from abroad.”

Yates, Lopez and Beaudin all pointed out that Quebec, which is Canada’s largest province and also the only one with French as its official language, is affected differently by misinformation because it doesn’t import news in English.

“The disinformation people are exposed to (in Quebec) is kind of different,” Beaudin said. “It’s more related to the language we speak.”

For example, at Agence Science Presse, Baudine tracked down a piece of false content about  side effects of the IUD birth control method that had gone viral provincially. She found that the disinformation had been born in France, and slowly made its way to Quebec media.

The false item didn’t pour over to the rest of Canada, because it would’ve had to be translated to English; francophones in all other provinces make up a minority of the population.

“It’s perplexing that you can see talking points that are clearly not a right to people in Canada,” Yates added.

He said that last year, he noticed a new logo being frequently shared in the Yellow Vest Canada Facebook page,  a radical right-wing group with over 100,000 members.

Though the Canadian group does not share the same goals as the French grassroots movement of the same name, Yates found that its members had adopted this logo from France as a point of protest even though it pertained to a French-specific constitutional law that had nothing to do with Canada’s legal system.

“There’s some copycatting going on,” Yates said. “France has a lot of influence on Quebec.”

Bilingual disinformation 

For the most part, Yates said, highly partisan and “really motivated” social media users spread the most hoaxes and misinformation. The Yellow Vest group is one example of avid disinformation sharers, but Yates said he’s seen fairly viral rumors start from obscure Twitter accounts with a low follower count.

But in some instances, Lopez of L’actuilite said, politicians also take advantage of the language barrier between the country’s largest province and the other nine to post inaccurate claims.

“For example, most people would argue that Andrew Scheer, (the leader of the Conservative Party, the CPC), did not win TVA’s French-language leader debate,” Lopez said. “Yet, here’s what the CPC shared right after.”

“Andew Scheer hits a home run in Montreal, wins TVA debate,” the social card says. It was also shared in French, but it got much more engagement and attention in English, according to Lopez.

The misleadingly worded image is emblematic of the curious forces currently at play in Canada’s political media scene, including the clever and often deceitful use of language against a backdrop of a bilingual media audience.