March 20, 2020.
By Cara Zwibel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
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The pursuit of the truth today is not an academic or recreational exercise – we want to know if it’s okay to go get groceries during a pandemic. But nobody has a monopoly over the truth. Out of the chaos, curating and distancing social media may become the new normal for consumers of information.
At a time when accurate information is so important, it is worth thinking about the tools that are available to us and how we can all go about ensuring we stay informed. So many of us get information through our social media connections, but how much should we rely on these connections when it comes to information that is so crucial to our health and safety? Social media is an important tool for connecting, particularly in times when we are forced to be apart. But using it as our primary or only source of accurate news information – particularly in a public health crisis that is evolving at warp speed – may be risky.
Increasingly, large platforms are taking steps to fact check and deal with misinformation. A group of the largest tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft recently released a joint statement saying they are working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts. Part of this work includes “combating fraud and misinformation about the virus” and “elevating authoritative content on our platforms”. While this statement came out on March 16, the very next day there were widespread reports of legitimate content being flagged and removed as spam on Facebook. The company has acknowledged that this occurred, citing a “bug” in their anti-spam system that they are working on fixing. We should not be surprised that algorithms are imperfect – indeed, large tech companies have acknowledged that increased reliance on machine learning and artificial intelligence is likely to mean that some mistakes will be made in assessing what content is legitimate and what is not. What the current environment serves to highlight is the increasingly significant role that these private companies play in how we access and consume information. It also makes plain some of the challenges and costs associated with using algorithms to moderate and, in some cases, censor, expressive content.
While these companies must be accountable for their actions, for the time being, the priority should be on taking steps to keep ourselves well informed.
Here are a few tips to consider in your quest for good information during a public health crisis:
Finally, since many of us are stuck at home with bored children, why not take this opportunity to teach them about the importance of media literacy? Media Smarts has some excellent resources for young people, including games and videos.
Cara Zwibel is the Director, Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. As counsel, she has appeared before, and clerked at, the Supreme Court of Canada.
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