“Securing Our Information Frontline: The Urgent Case for Media Literacy in Canada’s Fight Against Foreign Interference”

An advocate for media literacy says Canada must step up its efforts to increase media literacy in order to help fight disinformation amplified by hostile states. (CBC)

As federal parties craft the scope of a possible inquiry into foreign interference, Canada’s media-literacy charity argues governments and schools need to do a better job of preventing citizens from being manipulated by hostile states.

“We are going to need a media-literate populace,” said Matthew Johnson, education director with MediaSmarts, a non-profit aimed at boosting critical thinking among Canadians.

“Whatever the source of disinformation, but certainly including foreign interference, digital media literacy really is both the first and last line of defence.”

In May, as wildfires in Alberta hit a peak, images of blazes from years past spread on Twitter, with false claims that entire towns had been destroyed. That same month, a phoney image of the Pentagon on fire circulated, with fabricated claims that an explosion had occurred in Washington.

The two claims could be easily disproven by simple Google searches, such as a reverse-image search. But Johnson noticed both were widely amplified, which he agues is an indication of how easily foreign actors can disrupt Canadian democracy.

David Johnston, the former special rapporteur on foreign interference, warned before his resignation that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is concerned about foreign states putting out “disinformation or divisive content” that influences how citizens vote, or even dissuades them from wanting to cast a ballot.

“The openness of our democracy and media also provides an ideal forum for foreign actors that wish to disrupt our democratic process, often using social media and other mass communication technologies,” the former governor general wrote in his only public report.

In recent months, The Canadian Press has had to warn its audiences about fabricated screenshots purporting to be articles published by the news service. Other outlets have issued similar warnings about phoney news reports related to last year’s self-styled Freedom Convoy protests against COVID-19 measures.

MediaSmarts’ Johnson testified at a February committee meeting on foreign interference about the need for media literacy, but MPs largely focused on comparing Canada to allies that have expelled Chinese diplomats or launched foreign-agent registries.

“People want quick solutions and digital media literacy is a slow solution,” said the education director.

He said Canada should look to peer countries to see how they respond to bad actors and proactively prime the population against foreign narratives.

Matthew Johnson noted that Nordic countries have long included critical thinking and media literacy in their national curricula, in part because of Russia’s decades-long attempts to destabilize neighbouring democracies.

He said Canada should bolster its tools for both children and adults.

Canadian schools used to focus more on media literacy as part of a slew of cultural policies meant to insulate the country from being overwhelmed by U.S. broadcasting. That included educational programs run by the National Film Board in the early 1980s. MediaSmarts is now an independent successor to a program the board launched in 1994.

Johnson said those programs sought to teach Canadian youth that media are constructions based on conscious and unconscious choices by multiple people, as opposed a simple reflection of reality. The approach helped prepared people to decipher mass-media messages, he said.

But the internet has made communication interactive, making it much easier for people to exchange content while also raising privacy concerns. In Ontario, that reality is set to be reflected in a new curriculum for language classes in September, which was last updated in 2006.

“We really have not, in very many cases, updated curriculums particularly to reflect the increasingly central role of media in kids’ lives,” he said.

Today’s kids have been raised in a digital era. “They’ve learned not to trust what they read online,” said Johnson. “The problem is they don’t trust anything.”

He argued Ottawa should have national standards for media literacy in school curriculums that provinces could voluntarily follow, similar to existing federal standards on sexual-health education.

The standards could include tools for discerning credible sources of information.

“Disinformation quite often is true information that is presented in a misleading context, like a genuine photo that’s presented as being from a different time and place than it actually was,” he said.

“Knowing how to use fact-checking tools is one of the quickest and most efficient ways of finding out whether a claim has already been verified or debunked.”

Johnson said voters still need to develop habits to reflect on the sources of information they encounter — especially emotionally evocative content that fits one’s assumptions or political worldview.

“It’s vital that we apply critical thinking to our own thinking and consider, ‘How am I biased on this, and what would legitimately make me change my mind?”‘ he said.

In an era where information travels at the speed of light, media literacy has become a crucial skill for individuals to navigate the complex landscape of news and information. In recent years, concerns have been raised about the influence of foreign interference in Canadian media and its potential impact on democracy. Advocates argue that Canada must take decisive action to enhance media literacy among its citizens in order to combat misinformation and safeguard its democratic processes. This article explores the growing need for Canada to prioritize media literacy and the role it can play in mitigating the risks associated with foreign interference.

Foreign interference in media refers to the manipulation or dissemination of information with the intent to influence public opinion, policies, or electoral processes in a foreign country. The rapid advancement of technology and the ease of information sharing have made it easier for foreign entities to meddle in the internal affairs of other nations, including Canada. These acts of interference can range from spreading false or misleading information to conducting cyberattacks or funding partisan media outlets.

One of the primary concerns regarding foreign interference in Canadian media is its potential to undermine the democratic process. Democracy relies on informed citizens who can make educated decisions based on accurate information. However, when foreign actors inject false narratives into the media landscape, they can sow seeds of doubt and confusion among the populace. This not only distorts public opinion but also undermines the credibility of democratic institutions.

To address this issue, advocates argue that Canada needs to prioritize media literacy education. Media literacy involves equipping individuals with the skills to critically analyze and evaluate the information they encounter in the media. By promoting media literacy, Canadians can become discerning consumers of news, less susceptible to manipulation, and better equipped to identify misinformation or propaganda.

Enhancing media literacy requires a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, there is a need to integrate media literacy education into formal education systems across Canada. By incorporating media literacy as a core component of the curriculum, students can develop critical thinking skills and learn to navigate the vast and sometimes deceptive media landscape. This will empower them to make informed decisions and protect themselves from falling prey to foreign disinformation campaigns.

Furthermore, media literacy initiatives should extend beyond the classroom. Public awareness campaigns, workshops, and community engagement programs can help educate adults on media literacy principles and equip them with the necessary tools to assess information critically. Collaborations with media organizations, libraries, and community centers can provide accessible resources for individuals to enhance their media literacy skills.

In addition to education, regulatory measures can also play a role in countering foreign interference. Canada could explore strengthening legislation related to political advertising, disclosure of funding sources, and campaign financing. By imposing stricter regulations, the government can ensure transparency and accountability in media practices, making it harder for foreign entities to clandestinely influence public discourse.

Collaboration between government, civil society organizations, and media platforms is also crucial in combating foreign interference. Public-private partnerships can foster information sharing, develop best practices, and implement technological solutions to identify and mitigate the spread of false or misleading information. Encouraging media outlets to adhere to journalistic ethics and fact-checking standards can help maintain the integrity of news reporting and reduce the dissemination of foreign propaganda.

Moreover, international cooperation is vital in addressing the issue of foreign interference. Canada can work closely with its allies and international organizations to share intelligence, coordinate responses, and establish common frameworks to combat the spread of misinformation. By forging alliances, countries can collectively tackle the challenges posed by foreign interference and protect the integrity of democratic processes worldwide.

Foreign interference in Canadian media poses a significant threat to democracy and public trust. To safeguard its democratic processes and combat the influence of foreign actors, Canada must prioritize media literacy education. By equipping citizens with the skills to critically evaluate information, Canada can cultivate a more informed and resilient society. This requires a multi-faceted approach involving formal education, public awareness campaigns, regulatory measures, and international collaboration. By taking these steps, Canada can strengthen its defenses against foreign interference and preserve the integrity of its democratic institutions.


Following are some suggestions

  1. Provide examples: Incorporate specific instances of foreign interference in Canadian media to illustrate the real-world impact and highlight the urgency of the issue.

  2. Include statistics: Introduce relevant data or research findings on the prevalence and effects of foreign interference in Canadian media. This can help reinforce the importance of media literacy as a countermeasure.

  3. Explore case studies: Analyze notable cases of foreign interference in other countries’ media landscapes and draw parallels to the potential risks faced by Canada. This can provide valuable insights and lessons learned.

  4. Discuss existing media literacy initiatives: Highlight ongoing efforts or successful programs in Canada or other countries that have effectively promoted media literacy. This can serve as inspiration and a potential model for implementation.

  5. Address challenges and limitations: Acknowledge the challenges in implementing media literacy education and regulatory measures, such as resource constraints or resistance from certain stakeholders. Discuss potential solutions or strategies to overcome these obstacles.

  6. Incorporate expert opinions: Include quotes or perspectives from media literacy experts, educators, policymakers, or representatives from civil society organizations to provide additional credibility and diverse viewpoints.

  7. Address the role of social media: Discuss the specific challenges posed by social media platforms in relation to foreign interference and the spread of misinformation. Explore potential strategies or regulations aimed at addressing these challenges.

  8. Emphasize the role of critical thinking: Stress the importance of critical thinking skills as a fundamental component of media literacy. Provide practical tips or guidelines for individuals to critically evaluate information and identify potential signs of foreign interference.

  9. Consider the role of technology: Discuss the role of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and blockchain, in verifying information and combating foreign interference. Explore potential opportunities and limitations associated with these technological solutions.

  10. Highlight the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach: Emphasize the need for collaboration among government, media organizations, educational institutions, tech companies, and civil society in addressing foreign interference. Discuss the respective responsibilities and potential synergies among these stakeholders.

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