Homeless voters more susceptible to fake news, disinformation, studies suggest

Community groups are brainstorming ways to make sure homeless people have access to political information ahead of the federal election.

Edmonton's Boyle Street Community Services is keeping clients informed during election season

Desiree MacKenzie, a client at Edmonton's Boyle Street Community Services, says she appreciates the organization's efforts to keep her community informed during election seasons. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Desiree MacKenzie went out of her way to stay informed before she voted in the 2019 Alberta election — something that's particularly challenging for someone who doesn't have a permanent address or steady access to internet. 

MacKenzie is one of more than 5,000 Albertans struggling with homelessness, about 90 per cent of whom are old enough to vote, according to Homeward Trust statistics. 

Media literacy is a social justice issue, says UBC researcher Dionne Pelan, who studies digital literacy in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Martin Dee)

Community groups are brainstorming ways to make sure homeless people have access to political information ahead of the federal election.

That's in part because research is finding groups affected by poverty are more susceptible to fake news and misinformation campaigns.

"We know media access and media literacy are a bit more challenging in marginalized communities because they don't have the same ubiquitous access to technology that the mainstream does," said Dionne Pelan, a University of British Columbia researcher who studies digital literacy in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. 

According to Pelan, a major problem stems from infrequent internet access.

For homeless voters, access to the web is often in short spurts at a public library or university outreach program, Pelan said. 

"If you don't have the time or access to sit and research [politics], then often it gets passed onto you from somebody else," Pelan said. "We've all played a game of telephone tag ... where the story starts out one way, but after it's filtered through lots of people, it becomes a different story."

Language used to describe fake news and misinformation is rarely relayed to people who don't have regular internet access, she added, which poses another barrier. 

"It's not just understanding the information you're looking at. It's understanding, 'Is the information correct?'" Pelan said. "The sites you're going to, are they phishing sites? What are phishing sites?"

For Pelan, digital literacy is a social justice issue.

"For a lot of marginalized folks, the result of the election ... can have significant and sometimes detrimental impacts for people," Pelan said. "Everyone has the right to know what they're voting for."

Plus, Pelan said, people who struggle to access media often don't know where to vote in the first place.

That's where groups, like Edmonton's Boyle Street Community Services, step in.

The centre served as a polling station during Alberta's recent provincial election, and Elections Alberta relaxed voting protocol. In particular, homeless voters without picture identification were able to vote if Boyle Street staff vouched for them.

Boyle Street will serve as a polling station during next month's federal election, said communications manager Elliott Tanti. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Elliott Tanti, Boyle Street's communications manager, confirmed the organization will open a polling station for the upcoming federal election. But Tanti said he doesn't know yet if homeless voters will be able to cast ballots without identification. 

Boyle Street will also provide clients with election-related information, he said.

Tanti said he's concerned about how fake news and disinformation campaigns impact people struggling with poverty.

"When there's a disconnect between different groups of people based on socioeconomic status, it can lead to a very large information gap," Tanti said.

"It leads to marginalized communities being more susceptible to misinformation, and also the potential to be taken advantage of in a multitude of different environments, political being one of them."

Boyle Street offers computer and wireless internet access, as well as daily newspapers, to all of its clients, to keep clients informed, Tanti said.

But that's not all.

The Boyle Street centre put up a large poster with party platform information during the 2019 Alberta election and plans to do something similar for the federal election season. (Boyle Street Community Services)

In April 2019, Boyle Street, a nonpartisan organization, mounted a poster across an entire wall, outlining all of the party platforms in Alberta. 

It worked well, Tanti said, so a poster for the federal election will be unveiled soon. 

MacKenzie lights up when she talks about the posters. She said she believes homeless populations often receive political information that lacks depth. 

"A lot of people don't have that access to who the parties are, who the representatives are," MacKenzie said. "One thing  I can give great credit to is that [Boyle Street] definitely kept us informed."

"It's important that we are educated just the same as anybody else. Our feelings, our rights are being accommodated here, and that's normally something we can't get anywhere else."


Anya Zoledziowski is an award-winning multimedia journalist who joined CBC Edmonton after reporting on hate crimes targeting Indigenous women in the US for News21, an investigative journalism fellowship based in Phoenix, AZ.