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Google funds school program on how to spot fake news

  • Toronto Star,  19 Sep 2017,  SABRINA NANJI DEMOCRACY REPORTER

Google Canada is taking aim at the looming threat of fake news ahead of election season by bankrolling a new project to boost media literacy among youth — a move at least one expert says is a good first step, but not a cure-all.

Through its philanthropic arm, Google.org, the tech giant is providing the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) and CIVIX, a charitable organization focused on youth civic engagement, with a $500,000 grant to develop and deliver NewsWise — a program that will teach students how to suss out and filter so-called fake news and misinformation online.

Fake news came to the fore in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Take Pizzagate for instance, a bogus conspiracy story that surfaced during the election and prompted a North Carolina man to fire an assault rifle in a Washington pizzeria.

Canada has not been immune to fake news. Earlier this year, false reports circulated about the deadly Quebec mosque shooting.

More recently, a GTA imam was reportedly surprised to find photos of him accompanying an article claiming victims of Hurricane Harvey had stormed a Texas mosque that refused to help Christians.

Ottawa is currently working on ways to tackle the spread of misinformation online.

In the meantime, with the Ontario election slated for June 7, 2018, and the 2019 federal election not far behind, there is heightened potential for misinformation to eke out online, according to Aaron Brindle, Google Canada’s head of public affairs.

“We see implications for what (fake news) means for a functioning democracy . . . We want to make sure that we’re getting out ahead of it,” Brindle said.

The program will gradually be rolled out across the country to as many as 1.5 million kids ages 9 to 19 and baked into CIVIX’s Student Vote initiative, which already runs mock elections at 98 per cent of Canadian school boards.

NewsWise will be in place in Onta- rio classrooms in time for the spring election and fully operational across Canada ahead of the federal vote in 2019.

CJF and CIVIX will develop the curriculum in tandem.

Taylor Gunn, president at CIVIX, said the aim is to breed savvy citizens.

“I don’t think you can have informed citizens that are approaching the ballot box with knowledge and information if those citizens aren’t equipped with those skills to determine what is true or false news — especially at election times, where I think fake news would either be most in existence, or people could be most sensitive to it,” Gunn said.

Asked to grade Canadian kids on their current understanding of what makes a credible source of information, Gunn said he has heard differing accounts from teachers. While some educators believe students have a strong grasp of media, others feel they understand how to consume information, but not to determine what makes it accurate.

As one teacher put it to Gunn:

“They don’t have any levels of news literacy.”

Though many of the young folks getting schooled won’t be eligible to cast ballots in the next election, CJF executive director Natalie Turvey said there is an “urgent need” to educate future generations on fake news and misinformation, lest our democratic process be undermined.

“Canada is vulnerable to fake news. The abundance of information on numerous platforms, the downsizing of Canadian newsrooms and a dearth of local news creates a perfect storm for the proliferation of misinformation,” Turvey said.

“We need to give (students) the know-how and the skills and knowledge to find and filter information. That’s how we can build a more informed citizenry, folks that are more equipped to make decisions and be more engaged in the democratic process.”

Though boosting news literacy in the classroom is a good first step, it isn’t “necessarily sufficient,” said Edward Greenspon, president and CEO of the Canadian Public Policy Forum.

“It may be the first line of defence, but it’s not the ultimate line of defence,” he said.

Greenspon stressed the need for self-regulation by online platforms as key to combating fake news.

Google has attempted to do just that by introducing fact-check tags to its search results earlier this year — but Brindle said only a “very limited” number of third-party Canadian publishers, which do the actual fact-checking, have signed on. Bing, the Microsoft search engine, has followed suit and added its own factcheck label this week.

Only one Canadian news outlet has published a story using the factcheck tag thus far, Brindle said.