Identifying “fake news,” showing empathy to others online and avoiding disinformation are all important when staying informed in the age of social media. 

The Calgary Journal spoke with Ahmed Al-Rawi, associate professor at the school of communication at Simon Fraser University and director of The Disinformation Project, about navigating these complex issues.

Here is an excerpt of the interview.

Why does being conscious and aware of our social media feeds matter?  

Ahmed Al-Rawi leads The Disinformation Project. Photo: Ahmed Al-Rawi

It matters a lot because the kind of information we consume on a daily basis is instrumental and highly significant in shaping our understanding of the world around us. Let’s say you consume false health information; this could lead to your death. Or politics, if you consume the wrong information, you might end up voting for the wrong candidate. It’s instrumental to a healthy, vibrant society and democracy. There is no question that information has to be factual, otherwise all of us will be in trouble. 

What does aggressive misinformation or disinformation look like? Like targeted disinformation from a foreign government?  

It depends on the sender. In general, they are all bad actors trying to sow division in a given society. They do their best to use different techniques. For example, with identity politics, they can divide and conquer and when you divide a society, you can microtarget your messages to specific groups. 

As well as polarizing issues; an example is immigration, a hot topic for the far right whether in Europe, Canada or the U.S. The way you talk about immigration can get people listening; once they’re listening, they can become entertained or agitated. We need to be wary about exaggerated news items, things that are too good to be true, or explosive information. This is something we need to be very careful about. 

Immigration is “a hot topic for the far right whether in Europe, Canada or the US,” says Al-Rawi. Photo: Metin Ozer/Unsplash

What about disinformation that could piss off a lot of Albertans? Talk about Wexxit, Daniel Smith, oil and gas. As soon as they see that, they’re going to click it and might share it. 

You said piss off, which is just one thing. Usually the opponent will create different pages, one that is anti-Alberta, and one that is very much pro Alberta. When I looked at Facebook ads that Russian government trolls buy, I was surprised to see that they were running two Facebook pages. One page was attacking immigration, saying they have no place in North America and Europe. Another page saying exactly the opposite of the first one, that refugees are welcome and very beneficial to society. That second page, the target audience was Canadians, so you see here the kind of game they were playing.  

Do you think society should approach very polarizing and controversial issues with empathy and understanding? 

Yes, we have to do this. The truckers protest, for example. The way the media covered the truckers protest was awful and not the way to calm down people, because they were being agitated and pouring oil on the fire. 

If you immediately cancel them, you will never reach a middle ground. When you judge them, you are putting yourself above them. That’s not the right way to talk. What you need to do is empathize, figure out reasons behind people’s beliefs. You got to nip the problem in the bud, look at the roots of the issue. This only happens when we examine the motives, rationale, and way of thinking, and ask ‘why do they believe in this?’ 

“When you judge them, you are putting yourself above them,” Al-Rawi says of the trucker convoy. Photo: Naomi McKinney/Unsplash

What’s the best way for social media users to combat misinformation and disinformation?

Verify the credibility of information before sharing it. When it comes to sharing it, you’re actually magnifying its impact. Especially with information that could be highly divisive and cause issues, you need to do more work to verify that type of information. 

We need to be more inoculated, it’s just like a vaccine against false information. There is no escape from these types of false information. I’m very careful in my selection of words because there is no way you can be fully protected, but what you can do is take some vaccines that can make you more protected.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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