Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. are set to announce separate measures to fight “fake news” after facing calls from the federal government to protect the political system from the dissemination of misleading information in the media.

“Disinformation, misinformation and fake-news campaigns are a real issue that we need to be alive and alert to,” Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said in an interview. “This is a conversation that we need to have with Canadians, but that we also need to have with companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, which provide platforms for this information to be disseminated.”

Google Canada will announce on Tuesday a $500,000 contribution to help educate young Canadians on the importance of news and trustworthy sources of information.

The program will be delivered as part of hundreds of mock elections that will be held in schools in Ontario next year and across Canada in 2019. The NewsWise project is being organized jointly by CIVIX, the group that organizes Student Vote, and the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

“This is an example of the fact we recognize that fake news is a concern to this government, it is a concern to us, and we saw an opportunity to take action,” said Google Canada’s head of public affairs, Aaron Brindle.

Mr. Brindle said Google cannot stop the spread of fake news by itself, but wants to help Canadians “make informed judgments about the credibility of articles published on sites that appear on Google search results.”

CIVIX president Taylor Gunn said the NewsWise program will take the fight against fake news into Canadian schools, in conjunction with mock elections in which students analyze the value of various sources of information.

“What we hope to see is a much more empowered focus on the role of journalism in a healthy democracy, by encouraging news consumption from a variety of sources and understanding what is the purpose of fake news,” he said. “This is critical information for an engaged citizenry.”

The Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) said the state of Canada’s democracy is undeniably linked to the health of its media.

“News organizations, platforms, civic-engagement groups and organizations like ours all have a role to play in educating and informing [Canadians between the ages of 9 and 18] on trusted and reliable sources,” CJF executive director Natalie Turvey said.

Meanwhile, Facebook is planning an event in the near future to unveil what it calls the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative. The announcement was initially scheduled for Wednesday, but has been pushed back to later in the fall.

Facebook Canada’s initiative is a response to a recent federal report that listed key threats to Canada’s electoral system, predicting that “multiple hacktivist groups” would use cybercapabilities to influence the 2019 general election.

As part of consultations on Canada’s cultural policy, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has been in contact with senior officials from Google, Facebook, Twitter and other Internet platforms.

“These meetings were an opportunity to discuss the growing problem of fake news, their impact on our democratic society and the role of digital platforms in supporting access to reliable and local news sources for Canadians,” Ms. Joly’s director of communications, Christine Michaud, said in a statement.

Alphabet Inc., which owns Google and YouTube, and social-media rival Facebook, dominate the international online ad market. This year, Google is expected to have $73.75-billion (U.S.) in net digital ad revenue worldwide while Facebook is expected to take in $36.29-billion, according to research firm eMarketer.

Liberal MPs have argued that with their revenue and their global reach, the two U.S.-based Internet giants have a responsibility to ensure that the information that they distribute in Canada is reliable.

In particular, Liberal MPs were concerned by the prevalence of fake news during the 2016 American elections, which was widely seen to have targeted Democratic candidates. Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who is the chair of the heritage committee of the House, said the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum in Britain show that “people believe what they read.”

Daniel Leblanc
The Globe and Mail, September 19, 2017