Q&A: How to spot false information and personal bias during election info avalanche
The perception that politicians lie, is a problem for democracy says professor
There may be times during this provincial election campaign when you hear something that makes you think, "Is that correct?"
Whenever people are asked to vote, there's an opportunity for misinformation, or disinformation, to be used to sway people in the way they may cast their ballot, says Andrea Perrella, an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
He's also director of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy.
He spoke with Craig Norris, host of CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition, about what voters may want to consider as they face an onslaught of information that may come from various sources such as traditional media, social media, friends and family, candidates and parties during this election campaign.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Host Craig Norris: We often hear the terms misinformation or disinformation. Can you define them and explain how they're different?
Andrea Perrella: Misinformation can be like an error and disinformation is more intended to be wrong. It's an outright lie. So that's the distinction. They may lead to the same result where we are misled, either inadvertently or intentionally.
Norris: So what should people do if they're hearing or reading something and think, OK, this information may not be correct?
Perrella: Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking about that and my conclusion is not very optimistic.
But the first thing we need to do is maybe evaluate with ourselves as to whether we hold any of our own biases, our own cognitive filters.
And that's very difficult to do because nobody wants to look at themselves in the mirror and say, 'I think I am wrong about how I view the party leaders or how I view the prime minister or how I view the premier.'
Nobody wants to admit to being wrong.
They just read the news or watch the news thinking the information that they're seeing is accurate. Unless it disagrees with them, then of course they'll say, 'Oh, that's a bunch of garbage. It's fake.'
But it starts with us. And that's, again, very challenging. Very few of us walk around questioning our own beliefs and questioning our biases. But that's one thing that we can do.
The other thing is to — this is not something that we do quite consciously is — evaluate the source.
There was a meme that I saw of a senior citizen with reading glasses, staring studiously on a laptop, and the caption stated, 'Before I share a post, I verify its accuracy.' And the punch line said, 'Said nobody ever.'
This is the truth. And it's not our fault. It's quite natural. We expect journalists to do the heavy work. Well, you're paid to give us information. Why should I have to take effort to evaluate your work? I trust it.
Or if I disagree with it, then of course I think you're not doing your job right. But that's the extent of it.
So evaluating the source is another thing that we can do, but most people don't.
A lot of times the source looks credible. And a lot of what passes as fake news or intentional disinformation is made to appear in format and look and feel like real news.
We're hearing more the term "deep fakes," which uses really sophisticated technology, video technology, so that anybody can be made to appear to talk, to sound or to create an image that looks like a political leader saying things that the leader never said, so [there] is a lot out there that can easily deceive most people.
Norris: So what's the best way then to avoid being on the receiving end of that incorrect information? Or can we even just avoid it?
Perrella: Well, as a consumer, that's like saying, what can we do to avoid purchasing products that are defective?
There is a buyer beware principle out there, but the consumer can only go so far. We're not scientists. We can't just taking a tube of toothpaste and run chemical experiments on it to see if it contains toxins. We don't do that.
We trust that what we're consuming has already passed some kind of quality control. And when it comes to media that's available on the internet or even conventional media, we don't know if it has gone through adequate quality control.
We think it does. But ultimately, we are the quality control. And I think that's unfair.
Again, we expect that what we see has already gone through some form of quality control. We expect journalists to do their job. Why am I taking up energy and time to evaluate that? So there's not a whole lot that we, the consumers of information, can do.
And I would argue there's not a whole lot that we should do.
Ideally, yes, we should be critical thinkers [as we are] teaching in university to never accept anything at face value. But really, we're not in the position of that. We are consuming the information as it is delivered. It may be incumbent on either the provider or maybe incumbent on the platform and this is where the [internet service providers] maybe have a role to play
Norris: Can mis- or disinformation play a role in provincial elections, even the municipal elections that are happening this fall?
Perrella: It can play at any level, even at school board elections, it can play at any level.
So as long as there are people being asked to cast a ballot to empower some individuals, then there is the potential for manipulation, the potential for disinformation, as well as misinformation.
Because, after all, when we make a decision, it is based on, supposedly, some information. And if anybody can manipulate what we consider, then they can manipulate our vote.
Norris: Politicians, sometimes candidates, bend the truth. So what impact do you think that has on democracy when people running for office may not be entirely truthful in their own messaging?
Perrella: It erodes our trust.
It's like a car, for instance, and you're misled about the safety or misled about the performance of the vehicle you just spent a lot of money on. You no longer have trust in the dealership or no longer have trust in car salespeople.
And so the same thing happens in politics. We have over many decades been eroding our trust for political leaders, partly because they've failed in delivering [on promises]... and it may not even be their fault.
Governing is an incredibly complex process and despite best efforts, a lot of even the most honest leaders will fail in achieving their objectives.
But sometimes it is done on purpose. Sometimes they purposely lie to get our vote and then once in power, they do something else or they get caught with some kind of scandal.
Even though corrupt politicians are rare, the fact is... there is this impression that politicians lie and the fact that we catch them in their lie, feeds and perpetuates that declining trust. So it is a problem.
Norris: What will you be watching for over the next four weeks when it comes to the ways that party leaders, even local candidates, communicate with voters?
Perrella: Well, they should be truthful about what their party hopes to do once in government.
We've been looking at that when we hear about costing of their platform.
But also, I think it's really important to see how they reach out to voters. It's not enough to just go door to door, but they should be going to community organizations. They should be going to where people are active. And that's something that we should be looking for more.
We appreciate political leaders who are not just doing a job in a remote location. We appreciate political leaders who are part of our community. And to be part of a community means you have to be where the community is: not just door to door and a private residence, but also in whatever organizations that we belong to.