5 terms you should know heading into election season

What do you get when you cross the internet and social media, with the decline of traditional media? You get a democracy vulnerable to election interference! 

On the internet, any group or person can present themselves as anyone else, and all information is accorded equal value. On social media, info — accurate or otherwise — is shared rapidly, and there is little regard for long-established media entities that are accountable to their audiences.  

This environment is ripe for manipulation of data and of minds. 

In October, Canada heads into a federal election. The best defense against election interference is an educated citizenry. To help you separate fact from fiction, we’re setting straight a few of the terms around data manipulation that are often used interchangeably or incorrectly.  

Hacking elections is rarely about messing with the vote count. It’s about messing with voters’ thoughts before they go to the ballot box. 

ELECTION INTERFERENCE OR MEDDLING

Meddling in elections takes many forms. For example, well before the American election of 2016, Russians created fake Christian websites and Facebook groups, built huge audiences over time, gained their trust, and as the election approached, the content pushed out from these sources became more and more political and began to sway the beliefs held by followers about parties and candidates. It’s social engineering — psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging information — and it works!

DISINFORMATION

Disinformation is deceptively placed information. It has to do with intent to deceive. It’s a lie. 

Let’s say the Russians decided to meddle in Canada’s affairs, as with the U.S. They could pick on the Conservative Party, for instance, and create a series of fake emails, that when discovered would generate a massive media controversy.  

The problem is that once a lie or propaganda is out there, it’s tough to get back — bad ideas and controversy spread quicker and with greater impact than the truth. 

MISINFORMATION

It sounds similar, but it’s quite different: misinformation is mistakenly placed information.  

Recall how often you’ve seen friends share a questionable article on social media believing it to be valid: it may be false, but if they have a wide enough social media “reach,” that wrong data snowballs, to be viewed by thousands of people.  

It’s dangerous because anyone can fall victim to it; even if they don’t mean to, innocent people can inadvertently harm the democratic process.  

SATIRE/PARODY

The prevalence of satirical news or parody sites has exploded in recent years, and because the stories tend to mimic “real” news — though in a humourous fashion — they dupe plenty of people who don’t read beyond headlines. These kinds of stories spread like wildfire as more and more people share them online, many believing them to be true.  

The intent of the story may be to mock authority, to skewer politicians, but if audiences aren’t careful, they can end up believing a narrative that’s way off base.  

FAKE NEWS

Finally, we have fake news, a term that’s been bandied about especially by U.S. President Donald Trump, who uses it to label and denounce practically any article or information he doesn’t like. 

It’s not the same as satire, because, again, of the intent — it’s news or data purposely doctored to appear other than it is. Think of “deepfake” videos intended to trick as many people as possible — or of news articles from unreliable sources made to seem legitimate.  

This boils down to checking your sources; when in doubt, find out where the information came from. If it’s political material, find out straight from candidates what their policies are and put more trust in established Canadian media. Above all, be careful about what you like, click and share online, because your social reputation has a huge impact on what your friends think about politics. 


 

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