Federal government to announce $7 million in funding to fight disinformation online ahead of 2019 election

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The federal government will announce $7 million in funding on Wednesday to fight the spread of disinformation and “fake news” online, The Logic has learned.

Sources with knowledge of the program said grants will be awarded to mount public-awareness campaigns that will combat the spread of disinformation and misinformation online and increase digital literacy in the lead-up to the fall federal election.

This is the first federal funding of its kind to counter online disinformation and misinformation in Canada and comes five days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly criticized technology giants at an event in Quebec City.

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“The Facebooks and Googles of this world … have started to recognize, very belatedly, their responsibilities toward our democratic space and the conversations that we have as a society,” said Trudeau during a question-and-answer session with industry association Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Québec in Quebec City on Friday. “This is going much too slowly on their part, in terms of coming to this realization and taking responsibility.”

Disinformation is false information spread deliberately to deceive. Misinformation is false information spread unintentionally.

The announcement follows reports of significant electoral interference and foreign influence efforts on online platforms in presidential elections in the U.S. and France, as well as the referendum over Britain’s membership in the European Union.

The money will be split between organizations conducting digital-literacy programs to help voters assess online information better and groups running specific campaigns to increase understanding of disinformation and misinformation.

Talking Point

The federal government will award $7 million in grants to organizations for public-awareness campaigns to combat the spread of disinformation and misinformation online, and increase digital literacy in the lead-up to the fall federal election. This is the first federal funding of its kind and comes days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized Facebook and Google at an event in Quebec City.

Karina Gould, the minister of democratic institutions, will announce the program on Wednesday. The funding is expected to be drawn from the Canada Periodical Fund and the Canadian History Fund, both of which are managed by Canadian Heritage. Funding recipients will be selected via an open request for proposals, although the sources said the process will be short, possibly less than two weeks.

“By understanding common online deceptive tactics like phishing or trolling, Canadians can be less susceptible to online manipulation,” Gould said in a statement to The Logic. She added that while platforms’ acknowledgement of the risks of disinformation and misinformation is “an important first step,” the government expects “social media platforms to take concrete actions to increase transparency, authenticity and integrity on their systems to help safeguard our election.”

A government source—speaking on background as the information was not yet public—confirmed the details of Wednesday’s announcement.

The other sources said that a number of non-profits, academic institutions and foundations were asked to submit proposals for grants for similar programming last fall, but the government ultimately did not make any awards.

Other countries have made similar funding commitments. The U.S. Department of State allocated US$120 million over two years starting in 2016 to counter foreign election interference attempts and disinformation, particularly from Russia, although it did not end up using most of the money. And, last month, the European Union increased its budget for detecting disinformation from $2.56 million to $7.57 million. But those figures are tiny compared to the reported resources of the fake news merchants they’re fighting—Andrus Ansip, vice-president of the European Commission, said the Russian government was spending over $1.7 billion annually to “spread lies.”

The Canadian government has funded similar anti-fake news efforts abroad. In December 2018, it committed $2.5 million to “countering disinformation” from Russia in the Ukraine, ahead of the latter’s March presidential election.

The government had previously determined that it could not directly combat misinformation or rebut fake news, because its intervention could backfire, according to briefing notes prepared for then-Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly in November 2017 and reported by The Canadian Press in February 2018. But Wednesday’s announcement differs from the department’s suggested alternative—it concluded that partnerships between social media platforms and media literacy groups were a better way to address the issue.

Facebook and Google have each backed digital education initiatives in Canada. In September 2017, Google announced it was giving $500,000 to the Canadian Journalism Foundation and youth civic engagement charity Civix to create a program that would teach students to spot fake news online. Facebook launched its Canadian Election Integrity Initiative, which included a two-year public campaign with the Ottawa-based non-profit MediaSmarts the following month.

Wednesday’s announcement follows last month’s calls from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Ethics, Access to Information and Privacy for the government to fund research into the impacts of disinformation and misinformation, as well as digital literacy campaigns on the subject.