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Nearly half of Canadians find it hard to tell what’s true online: StatCan

Nearly half of Canadians, about 43 per cent, say they are finding it harder than even three years ago to tell the difference between what is true and false online, a new survey from Statistics Canada found.

The data from the Survey Series on People and their Communities found a number of Canadians are very or extremely concerned about misinformation — defined as news or information that is false, inaccurate or misleading, regardless of intent — posted online, with 59 per cent expressing these feelings.

Canadians say it’s becoming more difficult to discern between fact and fiction even compared to three years ago, when misinformation and disinformation — false information purposefully intended to mislead — began circulating about various issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, said this growing concern is not surprising.

“This really is an era of misinformation and other research, international research, has found similar results in fact in some jurisdictions, and even higher concern about misinformation right up there with climate change in some places,” he told Global News in an interview.

Caulfield says the difficulty people are facing in telling apart fact from fiction is due to several reasons. He said research has shown information overload can make people more susceptible to misinformation, but on top of that, misinformation and disinformation is becoming more sophisticated. He said the “misinformation mongers” are becoming more adept with resources out there to use, including images, text and even fake science in a “more sophisticated” way.

But in addition to that, there is a “universal distrust” in the public and those spreading false or misleading information have a goal of spreading distrust which in turn creates even more chances of minformation.

Often, when faced with misinformation, people look to fact check what is being said and the survey found 96 per cent of the population has verified information they encountered at some point. Yet on a regular basis, only 17 per cent say they always use at least one additional source to verify the accuracy of news stories, while another 36 per cent stated they often fact check and just 32 per cent said they “sometimes do.”

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Those who identified the difficulty of determining facts were more likely to verify the accuracy of news stories, with 59 per cent saying they fact checked on a regular basis.

Sun-Ha Hong, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communications who teachers courses on mis- and disinformation, told Global News in an interview Canadians should not feel discouraged if they can’t fact check everything.

“The truth is that there’s a hard limit to what we can do as individuals because there’s no way that we can go and fact check to oblivion every single thing we find online,” he said.

He notes Canadians will remain vulnerable to some misinformation, and there is the tendency among many who will find some information, read it quickly, try to make sense of it fast and then potentially have an emotional response to it.

The best way to combat this is by changing our way of thinking when it comes to information.

“So I think sometimes it’s a way of thinking, ‘OK, I’m never going to be able to fact check everything, that’s not my fault, I don’t have to become depressed over it,’” he said. “What I can do is try and retain that flexibility a little bit and talk more with people that I disagree with and then see what kind of flexibility I can retain when I’m looking at information, especially with a lot of this generative AI stuff coming in.”

Earlier this year, a report by U.S.-based geopolitical risk analysts at the Eurasia Group warned that rapid-fire advancements in artificial intelligence could help misinformation thrive in 2023.

It said large language models like GPT-3 and the soon-to-be-released GPT4 would be able to reliably pass the Turing test — “a Rubicon for machines’ ability to imitate human intelligence.” That, coupled with digitally-altered videos that can simulate people — often called deepfakes — facial recognition technology and voice synthesis software will “render control over one’s likeness a relic of the past,” the report warned.

When it comes to the ability to fact check, almost one in 10 Canadians said in the Statistics Canada survey that they didn’t know how to do so, with 15 per cent indicating it was too difficult to verify information.

Marianne Mader, CEO of the Canadian Association of Science Centres, told Global News there are multiple strategies people can follow when trying to determine whether what they’re looking at may be factual.

This includes determining if a source is sharing facts, not opinions, whether they are presenting information that not only is based on evidence but a large body of proven information, and if it is coming from someone or an organization that is transparent, authentic, has no “hidden agenda,” and has a proven track record of factual information.

“It is, I think, a skill and a muscle that can be practiced,” she said.

When it comes to demographics like age, the survey also found varying degrees of concern, though 59 per cent of both men and women had high levels of concern in 2023.

Those 15 to 19, whom StatCan considered the largest consumers of online social media content, were also the least worried about misinformation with just 41 per cent expressing that concern. That number climbed to 60 per cent by the age of 30 and 66 per cent for those 55 and above.

Mader said it points to why education can be crucial in helping identify and combat misinformation, but noted it’s something to do at all ages and there’s no limitation to how old you can be to access this knowledge.

Caulfield also adds it may show the need to teach youth about misinformation, critical thinking skills and about the tools “used to trick them.”

However, Mader suggested there were other recommendations she would make that were not necessarily touched on by the survey, such as understanding the tactics used by spreaders of misinformation.

“There’s tactics that are used that tug at your emotions that kind of make information kind of go viral in some ways,” she said. “So understanding those tactics that are being used to help people in a way be inoculated to misinformation and not being part of spreading it.”

Canadians and people across the globe are likely to see misinformation and disinformation used against them, but Caulfield says if you are trying to combat it, one of the biggest things to practice is patience.

“Sometimes, especially in this chaotic information environment, it takes a while for the truth to come out,” he said. “You know, be patient. The truth is out there.”


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