The Department of Canadian Heritage is reviewing a proposal to monitor truth in election-year reporting and “expose” coverage considered inaccurate. The initiative follows a Liberal cabinet plan to subsidize newsrooms it deems trustworthy. Elections Canada already enforces a statutory ban on campaign falsehoods.
Department staff yesterday confirmed the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based group, applied for cash grants for a so-called Digital Democracy Project. The value of the grant was not disclosed. “The application is under assessment and no decision has been made yet,” the department said in a statement.
The Policy Forum yesterday announced the campaign to “monitor digital and social media in real time” for “disinformation in the lead-up to the October 2019 federal election.” The group has received $593,000 in federal contracts and fees since 2015, according to accounts.
“The country lacks adequate understanding of what’s being put through our media ecosystem,” CEO Edward Greenspon said in a statement; “This project is designed to expose these attempts and determine how best to counter them.”
The Policy Forum declined an interview. “We don’t have anything more to say at the moment,” said Carl Neustaedter, spokesperson. “It’s really in the early stages. We’ll be putting programming and meat on the bones after Christmas.”
Neustaedter is a former deputy editor of the Ottawa Citizen. CEO Greenspon is a former vice-president at the Toronto Star. Both dailies seek subsidies. Blacklock’s neither solicits nor accepts government grants.
The Policy Forum’s announcement made no mention of department funding for its truth-in-reporting surveillance program. Neustaedter initially claimed the group “does not receive government funding”, but later acknowledged it applied for a grant to monitor media. “We didn’t put partner details on the news release because as far as I know they are not finalized,” said Neustaedter. “We generally don’t release the dollar amounts”.
Cabinet in a November 21 Fall Economic Statement proposed a $595 million, five-year subsidy program for select news media deemed to meet unspecified criteria for “professional journalism”. Details are pending. The proposal echoed a 2017 Policy Forum report funded by a sole-sourced contract from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Wary Of Favouritism
The Policy Forum study The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy & Trust advocated $100 million a year in subsidies to “qualifying” media, and concluded Canadians are wary of online information sources. “They look to news media outlets and journalists who have been around a long time for substantiation of what they encounter online,” said the report.
“The concern Canadians have is they don’t want the government directing their access to information, and they don’t want their money being used to favour one particular news organization or one particular perspective over another,” said MP David Anderson (Cypress Hills-Grasslands, Sask.). The MP is Conservative delegate to a Commons subcommittee that opened State Of The Free Press hearings on November 27.
“People are getting very wary of that,” said Anderson. “We need to guard against that. We do have free speech in this country. We need to respect that.”
Anderson said the definition of journalism has evolved from “a few organizations that could control the dissemination of information” to online media that see “people accessing sources of information they need and find relevant”; “I think Canadians have the capacity to take a look at multiple news sources and decide what’s true and what’s not, and areas where they are being deliberately misinformed – and that misinformation can come from any direction,” said Anderson.
Elections Canada On The Job
Elections Canada already monitors campaign disinformation. “Elections Canada has resources to do their job,” said MP Anderson. “They’ve been given the job to do.” Under a 2001 amendment to the Canada Elections Act section 91, “No person shall with the intention of affecting the results of an election, knowingly make or publish false statements of fact in relation to the personal conduct of a candidate or prospective candidate.”
“Elections Canada is working to procure social media monitoring and analytics tools to support our efforts,” said Melanie Wise, spokesperson. Wise said the agency was unaware of the Policy Forum program.
Election Commissioner Yves Côté in November 7 remarks to the Senate said he already has powers to prosecute media for campaign falsehoods. “We are essentially a complaint-based organization much like any police force which exists in Canada,” said Côté; “We could do that.”
Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault said his office has monitored Twitter, Facebook and other social media for falsehoods to “make sure electors have correct information”: “I think it’s very important,” said Perrault. “It allows us to react.”