A group of researchers at McGill University conducted a study into online misinformation and the possible effects on the provincial election campaign and say the findings have implications for the future of our democratic process.
“They’re actually more concerned about misinformation than climate change or epidemics, for example,” said Mathieu Lavigne, project director of the Canadian Election Misinformation Project.
That was the finding by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, but Lavigne says that fear was reflected by over 3,000 people they surveyed during the Quebec election campaign.
“Part of the reason I believe they’re worried,” explained researcher Maxime Blanchard, “is because they have a hard time identifying what is misinformation and what’s factual information.”
Blanchard was responsible for conducting the five-week survey, in which he team aimed to gauge what impact misinformation had on voters.
Lavigne said they found a lot of falsehoods centred around three themes: the pandemic, polls and the media, suggesting there’s collusion to skew polling results.
The third theme was the election and the voting process.
For example, there were questions about the use of Elections Quebec-issued pencils used in voting.
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“People think that their vote will be erased and that a pen will (be) used to overwrite what they put on their ballot,” researcher Ella Noel told Global News. Her role was to follow the false information online.
Elections Quebec has information on their website explaining why this is not plausible.
What the researchers found, though, was that most of the misinformation was restricted to small online communities and did not reach the public.
“We’re confident that it will not have a large impact on the election results,’ stated Lavigne.
Still, the team argues that online misinformation and not knowing what to trust on social media, are concerning.
“We should have a collective discussion about whether we should better police the information that circulates on social media,” Blanchard argued.
Getting social media companies to better flag false information is an example, he added. Lavigne believes Elections Quebec also has a role to play.
“If they provide more information about the voting process, then it can help educate people,” he pointed out.
He stressed that voters need to have confidence in the information they’re receiving in order to trust their democracy and the voting system.
The team of researchers will publish its findings in early 2023.