(Image Credit: Marcus Jeffrey via Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
Incomplete coverage of issues by the media leaves important gaps in the public’s understanding of these issues. When other entities seek to fill these gaps, their efforts are called ‘spreading misinformation’, often unjustifiably.
On April 25, The Hill Times published an article on Bill S-233, currently in process in the Senate, on the subject of introducing a plan for a minimum basic income in Canada. I can say two things about that article: (a) for a newcomer to the issue, it gives a good – but mostly one-sided – introduction on the proposal to introduce a minimum basic income (MBI) in Canada, and (b) for anyone who has spent about 10 minutes on informing themselves on the issue, it doesn’t advance their understanding by even an inch. If I may be allowed to be (uncharacteristically?) harsh here, the article merely rehashes what has been said about MBI umpteen times – and continues the one-sided presentation of MBI.
A friend shared this article with me, because he knows that I had written an article on Bill S-233 over a year ago (Our Money Tree), in which I had taken a detailed look at the proposed provisions and definitions in the Bill. As far as I know, there hasn’t been another piece by anyone else that takes a similar nuts-and-bolts look at the Bill – and certainly not in the mainstream media. As of this writing, my article has 4,760 page visits, including 10 in the past 24 hours (I mention this because the article is over 1 year old). When I had shared it on Twitter at the time, a sitting Senator (Ms. Paula Simons) had commended this approach in my writing, saying “I appreciate that your critique is based on what is actually in the Bill rather than misinformation”.
The preceding sentences are not in the tone of boasting; I consider myself honoured to receive positive feedback from every reader, Senator or not. Rather, I wish to use this example to zero in on the ‘misinformation’ part of Senator Simons’ response. As one of the major issues of these times, it deserves to be untangled, because otherwise our efforts to tackle it will flounder (as, I posit, has happened thus far).
A GAME OF CHESS
In the 1977 classic Hindi / Urdu / English movie ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ (‘The Chess Players’), there is a famous scene involving two indolent noblemen who were close (almost inseparable) friends and who were passionately obsessed with chess. One of them says something regarding a rumour that had gained wide currency (the story is set in the period when the British usurped , through devious means, of the Kingdom of Awadh in northern India). In response, the other friend says: “Ama log afwaahein kyoon phailatey hain?” (“Why do people spread rumours?) The first friend reacts to this by breaking into uncontrollable laughter. Being the genius that he was, the director, Satyajit Ray, left it to the viewer to answer the question.
Why do people spread ‘misinformation’? Before we attempt to answer that question, let us acknowledge that in EBSM (Era Before Social Media), it was called ‘rumour’. The word has judgemental connotations, but in fact a rumour could turn out to be true. The same applies to ‘misinformation’ as well. However, the usage ‘unconfirmed rumour’ or ‘unsubstantiated rumour’ sought to draw a distinction between a rumour that was as yet not disproved versus one that had been debunked. In EOSM (Era Of Social Media), we have not yet got around to coining similar expressions for ‘misinformation’. As a result, there is no way of knowing whether ‘misinformation’ is a deserved appellation or a tool to avoid debate.
Both rumour and ‘misinformation’ owe their existence to the fact that there is a gap (or several gaps) in the information that is publicly known about a matter of interest. The desire to know is a deeply human trait. On the flip side, the desire to keep people in the dark is an equally human tendency. However, media entities are supposed to be above this human failing – and this is precisely the crux of the current concern over ‘misinformation’. When media fails to address the questions that are on people’s minds about an issue or fails to explore the new questions that its reporting raises, the resulting vacuum is filled by other entities. What they fill this vacuum with can be reliable or fabricated – but all of it gets lumped together under ‘misinformation’.
When the stuff that filled the vacuum is reliable – or at least plausible – its summary dismissal as ‘misinformation’ by those in positions of authority (political or other) has the paradoxical effect of increasing the credibility of the stuff being offered and the entity offering it. Sometimes, this dismissal is accompanied by arguments that don’t hold up to scrutiny, or that raise further questions that remain unanswered. In such cases, the ‘information vacuum’ grows even further, prompting yet more stuff to attempt to fill it. In short, the entire exchange ends up being a feedback loop of causing and growing distrust in the official pronouncements. Whether this loop can be broken, and whether the powers-that-be even want to break it, is the real question.
‘FROM’ VERSUS ‘WITH’
However, at the grassroots level, there is a much greater willingness to acknowledge facts (that were earlier dismissed as ‘misinformation’). I say this despite my belief that the Canadian society suffers from a great deal of polarization. Let me offer you a personal example (Note: as I say often, anecdotes are to be treated carefully; they may not be representative of the broader reality).
I have a friend who is firmly on the Left side of the political spectrum, but whom I respect a lot despite our political differences. In one discussion a couple of years ago, I offered that the number of ‘Covid deaths’ was unreliable because the health authorities were counting every death as a ‘Covid death’ so long as the person had tested positive for Covid and was still positive before their death. This was very different from Covid being the cause of death. My friend responded that this was a ‘popular talking point among right-wingers to spread misinformation’. In reply, I gave him screenshots from the websites of the cities of Toronto and Hamilton that corroborated my claim. My friend’s stance changed instantly. Later, I found him commenting elsewhere that this deliberate corruption of data on Covid deaths was deeply upsetting. It is noteworthy here that he is a computer professional – which may explain his sensitivity regarding data integrity.
At this point, my natural question is why our mainstream media hasn’t commented on that distinction between ‘from Covid’ and ‘with Covid’ – or better still, made it into a full-length investigative story. Is it because they see their interests to be aligned with those holding political power? In normal circumstances, one would expect them to dig into how this decision to conflate the two categories was taken and how different cities ended up taking the same wrong path. The media’s failure in acknowledging that it wasn’t ‘misinformation’ to point to this distinction creates NEWER questions, and in the absence of any answer forthcoming, the resulting vacuum will be filled YET AGAIN by other entities. These views will ONCE AGAIN be called ‘misinformation’ – and the cycle continues.
In December 2022, US-based Canadian journalist Alexander Raikin wrote an in-depth article on Canada’s MAiD regime (Medical Assistance in Dying) in The New Atlantis. The article cites source material and official documents, and raises serious – indeed, GRAVE – questions regarding how the medical professionals involved in providing MAiD are trained and what they are told about the regime. Beyond the contents of that very disturbing article, two things stand out: (a) no mainstream media outlet had discovered these facts in the 5 years that the MAiD regime has existed in Canada, and more seriously, (b) his article did not light a wildfire in the Canadian mediascape, prompting follow-up investigations, interviews and analysis regarding this training. Even the otherwise excellent documentary by CBC ‘A Complicated Death’ that aired one month after Raikin’s article failed to cover this area of the MAiD debate.
On the other side, the entity providing this training (Canadian Association of MAiD Assessors and Providers, or CAMAP) continues to present as if there are absolutely no questions – let alone important ones – about the training. Other activist groups, such a Dying With Dignity Canada (DWDC) are also carrying on their advocacy for MAiD as before. The crucial questions raised by Alexander Raikin remain not only unanswered but also ignored. At this point, one may reasonably want to know the MSM’s reason for this neglect. However, the ‘information vacuum’ obtains in this area as well. Any hypotheses that one may offer to fill this vacuum will themselves be quickly characterized as ‘misinformation’.
Another excellent piece of writing on MAiD is the deeply moving personal account by Christopher Lyon. It raises a fundamental question, one that I believe should have been pondered before MAiD became legalized, viz., If someone uses their right to die in order to hurt other people, how should we address such a situation? It is now over 5 months since that piece was published, but none of the luminaries in our commentariat / punditocracy / MSM has evinced an iota of interest in untangling this highly complex and emotional aspect of an issue that is itself highly complex and emotional. In other areas, if one’s exercise of a right was even seen to be capable of harming others, there would have been reams of coverage about it in the media.
And on a final note on this point, recently I was made privy to a post in a Facebook group wherein a person from the US wanted to immigrate to Canada solely for the purpose of receiving MAiD. Now, assisted dying is legal in several US states. Why wasn’t this person taking the quicker and easier route of accessing MAiD there? Is it because Canada’s MAiD regime is more lax compared to those US states where the person wouldn’t have been deemed eligible? For reasons of privacy, I am not in a position to reveal any other details of this case. Therefore, the anecdote must remain uncorroborated. Does it mean that by talking about it publicly, I am ‘spreading misinformation’? Or is ‘death immigration’ a real issue that we should have public discussions about?
As a result of the media’s collective refusal to tackle the complex part of the MAiD debate, all that we are left with is the ‘emotional’ part. Consequently, any criticism of the MAiD policy or its rapid expansion to include more and more categories of people invites hostile responses that originate from emotion rather than reason. Some examples are: “You want to deny dignity to the terminally ill”, “You want people to suffer”, “Why would you deny someone a healthcare choice?” and the timeless “This isn’t the 1950’s anymore, Boomer” etc.
In case the foregoing discussion sounds like media-bashing, let me assure you that I am aware of their constraints. Major issues require lengthy treatment, and the media isn’t in the business of producing PhD theses. There are constraints of space. There are business considerations & bills to pay. And so on.
But let me start with another factor that is seemingly a limitation, but turns out not to be one on closer examination: shortened attention spans of consumers of media. It is indeed true that we are living in times where people’s attention span is, by and large, much shorter than it used to be. HOWEVER, it is also equally true to in the new media, and especially in the area of podcasts (both audio and video), the same people are perfectly willing to spend one whole hour (and sometimes 2 or even 3 hours) listening to discussions / explorations of issues. Most of these content creators are operating in their individual capacity (i.e., they are not ‘media outlets’). If they can get people to devote a good chunk of people’s increasingly scarce time, why can’t the media do the same? My tentative answer to this is that is because they haven’t tried. One specific aspect of this ‘not trying’ is that they keep having the same commentators and ‘experts’ who have been around for years & decades. The desire to bring in fresh blood is choked by the ‘old boys’ (and girls’) network’.
ONE WHO PAYS THE PIPER
Much of the legacy media remains trapped in a decades-old paradigm that is now nearly extinct. Everything from the structure of their daily schedule to the specific language and words that they use has become anachronistic. The resulting loss of viewership / listenership / audience makes their financial viability doubtful. At this point, it becomes politically profitable for the government to step in with ‘help’ in the form of taxpayer dollars. Looked at from another angle, ‘taxpayer dollars’ are also ‘audience dollars’. If you decide that legacy media isn’t worth your consumer dollars, the government will give them your tax dollars; the media still ends up getting your dollars. The disenchanted consumer is further disgusted by this arrangement.
On the other side of the equation, the media becomes increasingly more beholden to the government for its financial survival. Whereas previously, it owed its financial survival to the consumer and therefore had to produce content that the consumer liked and/or wanted and/or valued, now it has to churn out pieces that the government likes and/or wants and/or finds useful.
I believe that THIS is THE major issue in the debate about ‘misinformation’: instead of finding it to be beneficial to be curious, the media finds it beneficial to be doctrinaire. Anything that deviates from or challenges the doctrine MUST be called ‘misinformation’. As many people have observed, this has resulted in the term losing all its meaning.
THE WAY OUT
My theory for the moment is that we will dig ourselves out of this quagmire once ‘new media’ becomes dominant and ‘legacy media’ becomes either extinct or irrelevant. We will then return to the mediascape where all sorts of content will be on offer, authentic along with the dubious, and the people who turned out not to be ‘spreading misinformation’ will, over time, acquire enough credibility to relegate the non-serious content to the margins. To be clear, this non-serious content will have its support base – a normal society is an ecology after all – but it will not have an impact on the wider public opinion. In a nutshell, it will be the free market of information and ideas that will weed out actual misinformation. The top-down structure of decreeing something as ‘misinformation’ is what is the problem now. And the problem will get resolved when that top-down structure ceases to exist or to be effective.
Independent voices are more important than ever in today’s Canada. I am happy to add my voice to the public discussions on current issues & policy, and grateful for all the encouraging response from my listeners & readers. I do not believe in a Paywall model, so will not make access to my content subject to a payment.
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