Canada's Department of Heritage partnered with a charitable organization called Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) on a project called “Fighting Disinformation through Strengthened Media and Citizen Preparedness in Canada” in an effort to train journalists in “combating disinformation and exposing deliberate manipulation of public opinion on social media.” The endeavour also hoped to equip the general public with the “digital and news literacy skills to enhance citizen preparedness against online manipulation and misinformation.”
The project, according to the JHR, fell in line with the Collective Initiatives component of the Canadian Periodical Fund, a subsect of Canadian Heritage which aims to provide “funding to organizations for projects designed to increase the overall sustainability of the Canadian print magazine and community newspaper industries.”
After receiving the grant from the federal government, JHR then “found that training journalists in Canada on how to understand and investigate misinformation and disinformation meant they were better equipped to report on related stories.” The Canadian public as a whole, meanwhile, “have weak public digital and news literacy skills,” which subsequently leaves them “vulnerable to misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.”
Alleged “eye-popping” success
When Canadian Heritage requested detailed results around the “effectiveness of the tools, curricula and other resources aiming to help users learn to identify and counteract online disinformation,” the JHR pointed to a pair of eye-catchingly high numbers to claim their program had been a success:
By combining activities to both strengthen journalists' capacity and the public's ability to decipher real from fake, journalists reporting on these topics assessed themselves as 96 per cent better equipped to cover disinformation, misinformation and malinformation campaigns as a result of attending the training.
Social media users, meanwhile, assessed themselves post-training as 99 per cent better equipped to differentiate real facts from fake online.
Such a dramatic result came as a surprise, even to the JHR.
“This indicated to us that the training, developed in partnership with CIVIX and global disinformation expert Craig Silverman met a key need at a key moment,” the JHR reported.
CIVIX is a “non-partisan, national registered charity dedicated to building the skills and habits of active and engaged citizenship among young Canadians” following a merger between Operation Dialogue and Student Vote, two organizations that previously engaged Canadian youth, according to the company's website.
Craig Silverman, the “global disinformation expert” who worked alongside JHR, currently servers as the media editor for BuzzFeed News.
“Learn how to think like journalists”
Citing an issue with social media companies for their lack of willingness to “take on the responsibility to guarantee the accuracy of content on their platforms,” the JHR asserted that everyone needs to “learn how to think like journalists.”
Canadians need to know “how to check facts, how to know when we are being potentially manipulated by a disinformation or malinformation campaign.” Judging by their results, the JHR's campaign appeared to meet their goal.
To achieve this result, the JHR hired 10 “journalism trainers” from across Canada who then trained 297 journalists, just under the organization's target of 300. In addition to this, JHR hired 10 “media literacy trainers” who were pulled from “the ranks of media, think tanks, universities and civil society organizations” to teach 1086 members of the general public, more than doubling their goal of 500 participants.
For this project, JHR partnered with a number of large mainstream media outlets including:
CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Yukon
- CTV Kitchener-Waterloo, CTV Edmonton, CTV Montreal
- Global Halifax
Another partner was the Discourse, an Indigenous-focused outlet based in British Columbia. JHR also claimed they had further requests for training from a journalists' network in New York City and a hospital network in Houston, Texas. They also received outreach from other U.S. partners, including Politico, to work on a “citizen preparedness initiative in advance of the U.S. election.”
On the corporate side, JHR counts numerous media outlets as donors: Bell Media, the owners of CTV News stations; Shaw Media, the owners of Global News; Rogers Communications, the owner of numerous media outlets; CBC, Canada's state broadcaster; and Toronto-based newspapers the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.
Behind the numbers
The self-described “eye-popping” success JHR claimed to have achieved was calculated by two weeks of monitoring bylines of journalists who participated in the campaign. During this time, the organization found that 21 stories were produced by these journalists.
“These stories, which are a representative snapshot of total coverage,” the JHR report said, “reached an estimated combined audience of approximately 12 million people.”
“The workshops were covered by The Suburban in Montreal, and an interview with Geoff Leo, the Saskatchewan Trainer on CBC Morning Edition in Saskatchewan. The Suburban has an audience of 145,000 and the CBC Morning Edition in Saskatchewan has an audience of approximately 180,000 people.”
When examining these audience numbers the JHR claims to have reached, the few metrics provided to Canadian Heritage are potentially inaccurate or misleading.
According to the JHR report, the Suburban, an English language paper based in Montreal and distributed in three different regions of the city as well as nearby Laval, claims to have an audience of 145,000. The newspaper's website, however, boasts a print circulation of 65,000 and has a meagre presence online in comparison to other, more prominent, Quebec outlets like La Presse and the Montreal Gazette. An unsourced claim on Wikipedia does mention the paper's 145,000 reach, however.
CBC Morning Edition in Saskatchewan, meanwhile, is one of the largest radio shows in the province, and at one point in 2015, boasted an 18.1 per cent share of listenership. The issue with the number provided by JHR to Canadian Heritage, however, is that the 18.1 per cent number is a share of total listenership in the province — not a share of the entire province's population of just over 1.1 million.