The COVID-19 pandemic challenged Canadians to apply best available evidence-based interventions to protect ourselves, each other, and our healthcare systems to regain social and economic wellbeing. However, a deluge of disinformation was also unleashed, created, and promoted by hostile state-actors, pseudo-scientific product profiteers and anti-democratic ideologues.
This has created an ‘infodemic’ that has eroded trust in science and medicine, injured our rules-based social contract and has become a threat to our democratic institutions, here in Canada and globally.
Since the early days of this pandemic, my office has been flooded with thousands of emails and letters sprouting numerous conspiracy theories. These theories have claimed that a new world order operated by elites is taking over the world; the WHO is conspiring to deny Canada of its independence; that vaccines are a plot to microchip citizens to create a subservient population; that the pandemic isn’t real and COVID-19 is just the flu. Some letters contain all these theories, and more, in just one correspondence.
While these and others have been arriving to my office during the course of the pandemic, we saw a steep increase during the convoy occupation of Ottawa. At that time, many called our parliamentary democracy a tyrannical dictatorship and called for its immediate and possibly violent dissolution. The content of these messages demonstrated profound political illiteracy and inaccurate and offensive representations of historical events, as well as themes of toxic nationalism, libertarianism, misogyny, and xenophobia.
Rhetoric of this nature stems from both domestic extremists and hostile state actors (such as Russia, China, and Iran) who hope to destabilize democracy during a time of significant uncertainty. Disinformation is deliberate in its attempts to deceive and is often topic focused and funded by deep pockets.
Disinformation spreads rapidly and widely and has substantive negative impacts on health, mental health, civic engagement, and economic wellbeing. It also attacks and undermines the democratic institutions that we count on for guidance and direction for our social contract. This disinformation has been co-opted by ideologically based political movements that have used it to breed toxic populism, or new fascism, as some have called it.
Our institutions are essential for a healthy democracy and a citizenry that is scientifically literate, compassionate, and politically engaged. Disinformation that is linked to anger, fear and/or falsehood, becomes the fuel that political actors throughout history have used to ignite social upheaval and further their own ends. Our maturing democracy is not immune to destruction by such conflagration.
Research conducted by Statistics Canada in 2021 found that 96 per cent of Canadians saw content on the internet during the pandemic that they suspected was misinformation. And nearly 40 per cent of Canadians believed information they perceived to be factual, only to discover later that it was not. This research also reveals that Canadians rarely fact-checked information they found online—only 20 per cent said they always confirmed the accuracy of claims made about the COVID virus.
This data illuminates an important cog in the well-oiled disinformation machine. If over half of Canadians shared information they found online without fact checking its accuracy, this means that an astonishing amount of Canadians may have unintentionally contributed to the flow of disinformation. Those who seek to cast our social contract asunder are enabled when citizens do not have the necessary scientific literacy to critically evaluate and fact check the information that they are receiving and amplifying.
This means that both intentional and unintentional actors can widen the ‘infodemic’, worsening the problem. Those with under-developed scientific or media literacy are thus at risk of becoming the pawns of individuals or state actors who are politically or financially profiting from the spread of disinformation.
To answer the question posed by the panel in which I am participating for the Canadian Science Policy Centre, yes, democracy can still be saved. But its protection relies on the critical reasoning, scientific literacy, compassion, cooperation, and eternal vigilance of both our citizenry and our leadership. Each citizen has an obligation to develop their scientific and media literacy. Our civil society organizations and our governments have an obligation to provide access to developmentally appropriate resources to support that.
For example, organizations such as Science Up First and Evidence for Democracy can provide non-partisan, evidence-based information that the public could turn to for independent analysis of information that political leaders spout.
Our leaders must actively combat disinformation with transparency, effective communication, and vigor. They must not play with fire by trying to mobilize the angry and inchoate, allowing them to attack the very institutions that provide us with the framework within which our society manages itself. They must be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
It is of utmost importance that the scientific and healthcare communities actively engage with disinformation. Scientists and healthcare providers must assist in the creation of best-in-class and valid information and become dissemination vehicles for that information. We know that debunking works. We know that regulatory bodies can enforce their mandate to protect the public by addressing disinformation.
Finally, our education systems from primary to post-secondary must up their game in the teaching of media and science literacy. We live in a post-industrial society in which industrial era critical thinking tools do not meet current needs. For those who are now past their formal education, community-based or online learning opportunities need to be made available.
Despite the damage being caused by disinformation, democracy in Canada is not doomed. Taken as a group, Canadians are competent, resilient, compassionate, and intelligent. We take care of each other when faced with existential challenges and we do what we can to foster more equitable and healthier communities. The threat of disinformation is one that can be overcome with sustained effort, the promotion of science-based knowledge, understanding, and collaboration.
Now is the time to come together and act.