Like many Canadians, Andrew Petter is profoundly disturbed by the rise of nativism and the shameless use of false information to try to move people.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, the Simon Fraser University president said that he would have been shocked had he been told 10 years ago about how these trends would be shaping the world today.
"Our inability to differentiate between information that is reliable and unreliable, I think, is a huge threat to the way society operates," Petter said. “Overall, I think it represents a threat to democracy. When we have a fractured, unreliable information landscape, people wonder about how they can make decisions.”
He mentioned that this can have an impact on public health with the spread of incorrect information by the antivaccination movement. And climate-change deniers can distort the public debate over environmental issues.
He also said that social media enables people who traffic in hate to find others who share their views and target minority groups.
And the SFU president is worried about polling data showing that even in Canada, people are beginning to lose faith in their democratic institutions and in their ability to make a difference.
This month, the seventh SFU Community Summit, called Confronting the Disinformation Age, will consider how false information is challenging individuals’ and communities’ capacity to make informed decisions.
Taking place over nine days, starting on Wednesday (April 10), the summit will include a series of free forums, public gatherings, and art exhibits focusing on everything from municipal policy to an inclusive digital society to innovations in research.
Petter cited a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published last year indicating that false news travels more quickly than true stories over Twitter. Moreover, the MIT scholars found that this was due not to bots but human beings, with the fake stories 70 percent more likely to be retweeted.
“The proliferation of information…actually privileges information that is less reliable,” Petter said. “So the question is: what do we do about it?”
On the first day of the summit, there will be a Philosopher’s Café discussion about truth in the modern age and a session on climate populism at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Joy Johnson, SFU's vice president, research and international, will be at the SFU Graduate School of Business that same evening along with researchers to hold rapid-fire discussions and host interactive demonstrations.
On April 16, the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sue Gardner, will share the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie and Atlantic senior editor David Frum.
Another event, Youth Take Action: Digital Citizenship Day, will bring together secondary-school students for a one-day workshop to learn how to avoid being taken in by fake news and misinformation.
There’s also a student-led queer-friendly event, Fake News, Real Talk, showing how disinformation can shape pop culture, politics, and people’s personal lives.
“I’m particularly pleased that we are focusing on youth,” Petter said, “because we know that in terms of participation rates in elections, getting youth voters to turn out continues to be a challenge."
He added that youths will have to cope with many of the implications of disinformation.
"The devastating impacts of climate change, if we don't take action, will be visited on youth to a much greater extent than people of my generation," Petter noted. "So the fact that we are specifically reaching out to youth so the youth take action on Digital Citizenshp Day is a really important component of the summit."