If Trudeau's going to crack down on 'fake news', he needs to define the term

Does Trudeau want to censor columnists and silence legitimate opposition voices?

(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)

By: Candice Malcolm

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants social media companies to crack down on what he considers “fake news.”

According to a recent media report, Trudeau met with top executives at Facebook and told them to fix their algorithms to prevent the spread of so-called fake news.

He didn’t simply ask Facebook to investigate the supposed problem, he threatened action – including stricter regulations from Ottawa – if the social media giant failed to comply with his demands.

Those are fighting words. But Trudeau and his Liberal colleagues have been anything but clear when it comes what they mean by ‘fake news.’

We hear the term thrown around a lot, but there is little agreement a definition.

Some use it to describe the rare phenomenon of websites that look reputable but are really just a guy in a basement somewhere in Eastern Europe making things up. Think of sites pushing total conspiracy theories about Elvis, JFK or the Pope.

There is no evidence, however, that this is a widespread problem. Despite plenty of hoopla about “fake news” influencing the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg strongly denied these allegations.

“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” wrote Zuckerberg in November 2016. “Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”

Is this what Trudeau was referring to? A problem that impacts less than 1% of content? Or is it something else?

The term fake news is sometimes used to refer to inaccurate news stories from the mainstream media – stories that later get retracted and perhaps a journalist gets suspended or fired.

Just this week, CTV retracted an element of an earlier report alleging sexual misconduct against former Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown. “CTV acknowledged Tuesday night a pivotal accusation – that Brown plied an underage high school girl with booze – is not true,” a recent Sun story explained.

Was the original report “fake news”? Many argue that it was. Is this the kind of “fake news” that Trudeau wants censored from the internet? That’s doubtful.

What’s more likely is that Trudeau is referring to a third and much more cynical type of fake news. Some Liberals have made a bad habit of using the term to describe conservative content and opinions they don’t like and news reports that are unflattering to the Liberal establishment.

These smears aren’t just coming from low-level Liberal activists. On Thursday, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna reacted to my recent Sun column by calling it “fake news.” She said that calling Trudeau’s new carbon tax a “tax grab” is fake news.

It’s remarkable. A top government official called an opinion column, backed by facts and sources, fake news while pushing her own partisan spin that a tax isn’t really a tax. 

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is pressuring social media giants to censor so-called fake news, without so much as defining it. Does the Trudeau government consider opinion columns in the Sun to be fake news? Does Trudeau want to censor columnists and silence legitimate opposition voices?

I asked Trudeau’s office if they had a set definition or used objective criteria to determine what is fake news. His office has not responded to my request. 

Before they start censoring the internet, they need to answer these questions.