Apr 23, 2019


Event Description: In this workshop, journalists, academics, students, stakeholders and citizens explored the impacts of misinformation and brainstormed practical solutions on how to depolarize the political discourse leading up to Canada’s 2019 federal election.

Event Host: SFU Public Square, The Discourse  

Background: SFU Public Square, an academic initiative designed to stimulate and restore local connections, convenes meaningful and constructive dialogue through its annual Community Summit. The first Community Summit, Alone Together: Connecting in the City, (Sept. 2012) addressed the issue of isolation and disconnection in the urban environment. The theme of 2019, Confronting the Disinformation Age (10-18 April) invites participants to think critically about the “post-truth” era and its erosion of our trust in Canada’s public institutions, including the media and political systems.     

VSIR Thinking Points:

  • The world is at the threshold of a digitally-driven information era. Proliferating communications and internet-based technologies enable the development of e-Learning, novel consumer experiences, flexible institutional structures, and innovation districts. In fact, thousands of “urban intelligence” initiatives are emerging around the world, connecting more ideas, people, and places than at any time in history. As they become more user-friendly and cost-effective to administer, these technology platforms enable citizen journalists and leaderless political movements to circumvent traditional information “gatekeepers” such as the mainstream media, think-tanks, and other legacy institutions.
  • A hard “truth” about the digital era is that as the world becomes more interconnected, waging creative disruption is easier than protecting the status quo. While the rapid deployment of digital media platforms expands the scope of open source intelligence (OSINT) sharing, it also accelerates the intensity and geographic reach of misinformation. Examples like the anti-vaccine movement in North America and the “Brexit” fiasco in the United Kingdom demonstrate the degree to which misinformation is facilitated by “lazy” journalism, group-think, public complacency, and partisan political behavior. A more pernicious threat in the digital “marketplace of ideas” is disinformation (ie., deliberate falsehoods, active measures, propaganda) used to perpetuate various forms of discrimination, youth radicalization, and crimes against humanity (ie., human trafficking, forced migration of minority population groups). Unfortunately, the digital platforms which accelerate the know-how of business start-ups are also available to enterprising criminal syndicates, terrorist organizations, and freelancing cyber-hackers capable of exploiting vulnerabilities in “smart” city infrastructure.    
  • Just as the 1950s and 1960s were a “golden era” of Canada’s cultural, education, and scientific infrastructure development, the coming decades could witness an upsurge of next-generation capabilities and knowledge assets. To succeed, investments in social resilience will have to match (if not surpass) resources allocated to strengthen national security. A good example in this regard is the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research facility at the University of Toronto dedicated to exposing digital threats to civil society. In Vancouver, the former Emily Carr University of Art and Design (ECUAD) building on Granville Island is a prime location for such a facility.
  • Innovative and coordinated policy thinking at all governmental levels is vital to the successful and rapid deployment of next-generation capabilities. From an oversight perspective, the creation of an independent body designed to monitor and report on social media organizations (ie., Facebook, Twitter, You Tube) could provide Canadian decision-makers with real-time insights about “soft-law” options for regulating digital threats and on-line behavior. Moreover, proactive information disclosures by all levels of government in Canada would help to fill critical information gaps on complex public policies and to restore trust in our legacy institutions. Finally, more attention should be given to preventing the in-bound movement of foreign groups and political entrepreneurs (ie., PIGEDA, Golden Dawn, Hizb ut-Tahrir) which may be interested in establishing an operational presence in Canada.    

Concluding Remarks

Rapid advancements in digital technologies (ie., social media, virtual telepresence, sensors, data analytics, robots, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing) are indispensable to our future social and economic development. Our management of digital opportunities (ie., e-commerce, on-line learning) and risks (ie., click-bait populism, social media nationalism) will succeed or fail based on the tight integration of policy and program interventions designed to stimulate economies of scale. More attention will be directed at this question as Canada gets closer to the 2019 federal election. But public policy solution sets will be more effective over the long-term if municipal leaders, non-partisan think-tanks, civil society organizations, and siloed innovation pods work in close collaboration to strengthen Canada’s social resilience and its distributed knowledge infrastructure.

Speakers and Agenda:


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