Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has put the menace of "fake news" on notice.
Her plans to take on this challenge across social media and internet platforms is a welcome relief, as the face of digital technology, the normal exchange of information, and the entirety of public discourse has been rapidly descending into a disorienting mess.
The shocking case of "Pizzagate" that prompted a man in North Carolina to open fire with an assault rifle in a pizzeria, based on a fictitious story about Hillary Clinton, should be enough for legislators everywhere to stand up and take note.
The general public in the western world has been becoming steadily more aware of the threat of disinformation campaigns -- be they directed by private citizens, corporations, politicians, or governments -- as it is clear that their purpose is to sow confusion, doubt, anger, and callous indifference to our systems of civil organization.
And for all of the talk of nuclear Armageddon and who has their fingers on which buttons, modern disinformation campaigns are a more immediate threat that is flying under the radar.
Although various categories of propaganda have been in use since ancient Persia, the use of disinformation campaigns to influence the citizens other than one's own is rather new, emerging post 9/11 in the era of media fluidity and the globalization of information exchange.
Perhaps the most successful example of such propaganda is "Russia Today," known simply as "RT" -- an international television network created and funded by the Russian government.
What most people do not know is that it was co-founded by Vladimir Putin's then-press attaché Aleksei Gromov (now his Deputy Chief of Staff) and former media minister Mikhail Lesin (nicknamed the Bulldozer for his ability to get Russian media outlets under centralized control), and that its news agenda is controlled, directed and censored by the Kremlin.
A 2010 exposé by Julia Ioffe published in Columbia Journalism Review states that RT reporters "who tried to broadcast anything outside the boundaries that Moscow had carefully delineated were punished."
Although RT positions itself as editorially independent, it has pushed out countless verifiably false stories ranging from "truther" theories on 9/11 to alleging that the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine was started by the European Union. Having its finger on the pulse of a newly suspicious and anti-establishment West, RT continues to sow seeds of doubt and discontentment in its western viewers who have been increasingly tuning out traditional news sources.
Criticism of RT is hardly limited to western journalists: among many others, Andrey Illarionov, former advisor to Vladimir Putin and now one of his critics, has called the channel "the best Russian propaganda machine for the outside world."
Ironically, it was Winston Churchill and later Jack Kennedy who endorsed the method of cultural infiltration in order to defeat the threat of then-Soviet Russia - except, of course, it was the virtues of free commercial and cultural intercourse that were thought to be the main weapons, not false news and a jettisoning of verifiable facts.
The fact that RT has been appearing on several Canadian cable networks since 2010 leads to the question of whether broadcasting RT is in the Canadian the public interest, or even if it meets our broadcasting standards.
Clearly, standard practices of journalism do not apply at RT despite the fact that their broadcasts are slick, modern, and interspersed with slots of genuine reporting. The British regulator Ofcom has recently charged RT with "serious breaches of impartiality" and forced the network to correct fake news stories including one that the BBC staged chemical weapons attacks by Syrian president Bashir al-Assad, and another alleging ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian army forces. Blatant fabrications, not simply editorial leanings, betray RT as a Russian propaganda machine operating at full throttle.
RT is a serious threat to credible, factual information exchange in this country, and Minister Joly would do well to train her sights on it. Much of Russia Today's programming may be in contravention of the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987, as a licensee (someone receiving a broadcasting license) is prohibited under 5(1)(d) of the regulations from broadcasting false or misleading news. Minister Joly is right to take on the issue of fake news, and a state-run propaganda machine from Russia should be her first order of business.
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