In collaboration with the Balsillie School of International Affairs, the University of Waterloo convened a dialogue on May 14, with academic and industry experts at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), addressing the misinformation and disinformation crisis facing liberal democracies worldwide. The event delved into the escalating threat of disinformation and its profound implications for the future of democratic governance.

At a time characterized by rapid technological advancements and shifting media landscapes, false information spreads like wildfire, shaping public opinion, fueling social polarization and breaking down the public’s trust in our institutions.

The Trust in Research Undertaken in Science and Technology (TRuST) scholarly network brings together researchers and practitioners from across disciplines to improve communication with the public and build trust in science and technology.

Dr. Bessma Momani, associate vice-president, International and professor of political science at University of Waterloo moderated the panel of speakers which was comprised of:

  • Dr. Joan Donovan, founder of the Critical Internet Studies Institute and professor of communication studies at Boston University
  • Dr. Ann Fitz-Gerald, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University
  • John Poulos, president and CEO of Dominion Voting Systems, a North American company that produces and sells electronic voting hardware and software, including voting machines and tabulators

trust lecture panel

From left to to right: John Poulos, Ann Fitz-Gerald, Joan Donovan, Bessma Momani

The panel offered insights into the damaging effects of disinformation on democratic norms and processes. From polarization and voter apathy to skepticism toward scientific consensus, the ramifications of unchecked misinformation are diverse and sweeping.

Donovan highlighted the need for proactive policy measures to combat the dissemination of false narratives and mitigate the ensuing societal divisions.

“We often overlook the role of social media’s advertising infrastructure, which fundamentally shapes our online experience. Free social media platforms serve as conduits for targeted advertising, leveraging vast amounts of personal data to tailor ads with precision,” Donovan said. “This advertising infrastructure, once dispersed among reputable news outlets, now dominates online spaces, blurring the lines between content and promotion. Despite its pervasive influence, this advertising-driven model remains unregulated, perpetuating the illusion of technology being a neutral force when it’s anything but.”

Fitz-Gerald emphasized the imperative of bolstering public trust in science and evidence-based policymaking to safeguard democratic governance from the pernicious effects of misinformation.

"We need legislators and policymakers who grasp the complexities of our rapidly evolving technological landscape, where emerging transformative technologies like AI lack governance frameworks, posing challenges for accountability and regulation, particularly in a world shifting towards winner-takes-all geopolitics,” she said.

Poulos offered insights into the use of technological innovations used in electoral processes and how our systems are set up so malicious interference doesn’t take place, ensuring the integrity of democratic elections.

“From my standpoint, election officials are accountable for the democratic process, the challenge lies in ensuring transparency and trust, especially in the U.S. system. Prior to 2020, public engagement with election boards was minimal, but now, the painstaking process of ensuring ballot security has become a tedious public spectacle,” Poulos said. “We need to remind people that our paper ballots undergo bipartisan scrutiny, remaining securely always stored within the county’s custody. These ballots are subject to hand-counted audits and recounts to ensure transparency and accuracy.”

He also expressed how important it is to fund and support quality journalism.

“I've come to realize how expensive quality journalism is and the importance of investing in credible news sources. Maintaining an editorial board and upholding journalistic standards comes at a cost, and like many, I too neglected to pay for my news. Yet, the ubiquity of disinformation, even infiltrating personal devices, underscores the pressing need for paying for news, media literacy and resilience against misinformation.”

The event, attended by a diverse audience of academics, local politicians and concerned citizens, served as a reminder of the collective responsibility to safeguard the foundations of democracy in an era fraught with misinformation and ideological polarization.

Question and answer

Audience members had the chance to ask panellists questions after their discussion

“With news becoming increasingly scarce and underfunded, and the extraction of advertising diminishing our access to reliable information, we should reconsider our reliance on traditional media. Investing in local knowledge and civil society may offer viable alternatives, promoting trust and truth on a more grassroots level,” Donovan said. “Find people within your community who are concerned with the same issues you are and work with them to address them at a local level.”

As liberal democracies grapple with the enduring challenges posed by disinformation, initiatives such as the TRuST Scholarly Network, showcased during the event, offer promising avenues for collaborative research and policy innovation aimed at fortifying democratic resilience in the face of evolving threats.

Through interdisciplinary collaboration and community engagement, the University of Waterloo endeavors to shape a future where trust, truth and democratic values hold sway, rising above the swift and divisive currents of misinformation that threaten to erode the foundations of democratic society.

Networking event

After the discussion and Q and A session, a networking reception allowed for conversation

TRuST will continue engaging the public through their lecture series, with the next session scheduled for September 2024, focusing on climate change.

Photo credit: Sam Charles, University Relations