As federal parties craft the scope of a possible inquiry into foreign interference, Canada's media-literacy charity argues governments and schools need to do a better job of preventing citizens from being manipulated by hostile states.

"We are going to need a media-literate populace," said Matthew Johnson, education director with MediaSmarts, a non-profit aimed at boosting critical thinking among Canadians.

"Whatever the source of disinformation, but certainly including foreign interference, digital media literacy really is both the first and last line of defence."

In May, as wildfires in Alberta hit a peak, images of blazes from years past spread on Twitter, with false claims that entire towns had been destroyed. That same month, a phoney image of the Pentagon on fire circulated, with fabricated claims that an explosion had occurred in Washington.

The two claims could be easily disproven by simple Google searches, such as a reverse-image search. But Johnson noticed both were widely amplified, which he agues is an indication of how easily foreign actors can disrupt Canadian democracy.

David Johnston, the former special rapporteur on foreign interference, warned before his resignation that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is concerned about foreign states putting out "disinformation or divisive content" that influences how citizens vote, or even dissuades them from wanting to cast a ballot.

"The openness of our democracy and media also provides an ideal forum for foreign actors that wish to disrupt our democratic process, often using social media and other mass communication technologies," the former governor general wrote in his only public report.

In recent months, The Canadian Press has had to warn its audiences about fabricated screenshots purporting to be articles published by the news service. Other outlets have issued similar warnings about phoney news reports related to last year's "Freedom Convoy" protests against COVID-19 measures.

Johnson, from Media testified at a February committee meeting on foreign interference about the need for media literacy, but MPs largely focused on comparing Canada to allies that have expelled Chinese diplomats or launched foreign-agent registries.

"People want quick solutions and digital media literacy is a slow solution," said Johnson. 

He said Canada should look to peer countries to see how they respond to bad actors and proactively prime the population against foreign narratives. 

Johnson noted that Nordic countries have long included critical thinking and media literacy in their national curricula, in part because of Russia's decades-long attempts to destabilize neighbouring democracies.

Finnish schoolchildren are taught how to assess the veracity of news reporting, putting skills like recognizing bad-faith arguments on par with grammar and reading comprehension. The country's public broadcaster produces daily news content aimed at elementary and high-school students.

Similar programs exist in Sweden, which has ramped up the fight against disinformation targeting adults. Last year, the country's military launched the Psychological Defence Agency, which analyses disinformation and proposes countermeasures.

It has produced reports on Chinese interference in municipalities in Sweden and created a handbook for journalists to help them prevent manipulation attempts — such as people coming to them with fake stories or hate-mail campaigns trying to discourage them from reporting on certain topics. 

The agency is also trying to prime Swedes on deepfakes, which use artificial intelligence to create inauthentic content that looks real, such as videos of politicians talking. 

Johnson said Canada should bolster its tools for both children and adults.

Canadian schools used to focus more on media literacy as part of a slew of cultural policies meant to insulate the country from being overwhelmed by American broadcasting. That included educational programs run by the National Film Board in the early 1980s. MediaSmarts is now an independent successor to a program the board launched in 1994.

Johnson said those programs sought to teach Canadian youth that media are constructions based on conscious and unconscious choices by multiple people, as opposed a simple reflection of reality. The approach helped prepared people to decipher mass-media messages, he said.

But the internet has made communication interactive, making it much easier for people to exchange content while also raising privacy concerns. In Ontario, that reality is set to be reflected in a new curriculum for language classes in September, which was last updated in 2006.

"We really have not, in very many cases, updated curriculums particularly to reflect the increasingly central role of media in kids' lives," he said. 

Today's kids have been raised in a digital era. "They've learned not to trust what they read online," said Johnson. "The problem is they don't trust anything."

He argued Ottawa should have national standards for media literacy in school curriculums that provinces could voluntarily follow, similar to existing federal standards on sexual-health education. 

The standards could include tools for discerning credible sources of information.

"Disinformation quite often is true information that is presented in a misleading context, like a genuine photo that's presented as being from a different time and place than it actually was," he said.

"Knowing how to use fact-checking tools is one of the quickest and most efficient ways of finding out whether a claim has already been verified or debunked."

Johnson said older generations need to "unlearn" the instinct to reflexively trust whatever they're reading, which stems from an era when credible media outlets and governments were largely the only ones who could afford to put out messages.

"You could immediately know that a newspaper was a more reliable source than some photocopied pamphlet," he said. 

Now, a website set up by conspiracy theorists can be designed to look just as credible as a longstanding news organization.

In 2019, MediaSmarts launched the Break the Fake campaign, which riffed on '90s television ads that warned children not be duped into believing in the existence of the North American "house hippo."

The platform, targeted at adults, features guides and quizzes on how to spot fake news, through methods like using fact-checking sites or finding the original source of a claim.

Ottawa has funded similar types of programming, but without issuing curriculum guidance or a co-ordinated strategy. Instead, the debate on Parliament Hill has focused on the broader regulation of the content Canadians can access online, such as possible restrictions on hate speech.

Johnson said voters still need to develop habits to reflect on the sources of information they encounter — especially emotionally evocative content that fits one's assumptions or political worldview.

"It's vital that we apply critical thinking to our own thinking and consider, 'How am I biased on this, and what would legitimately make me change my mind?'" he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 16, 2023.