Foreign interference: EU’s advice for Canada
The European Union’s head of combating foreign interference in communications says explosive allegations about Beijing’s meddling in elections can be an opportunity to improve Canadians’ understanding of disinformation and media literacy.
“The most important is awareness raising; this is the absolute top priority,” said Lutz Guellner, the EU foreign ministry’s head of strategic communications, in an interview last week.
“This discussion in the public is absolutely crucial.”
Guellner was speaking during a visit to Ottawa last month as part of the G7 rapid response mechanism, a working group launched at a 2018 summit in Quebec, to counter threats to democracy.
The initiative specifically relates to foreign information manipulation, which means intentional disinformation originating from a foreign country, as part of a state’s broader strategy to interfere in domestic issues.
“Our Canadian colleagues have taken this already for years very seriously. They’ve built a very good infrastructure to keep the G7 in this field together, as it’s become more and more important.”
The effort took on more urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
“It is not so much that we see quantitatively much more (propaganda), but that we see new tactics, new techniques, new procedures being deployed,” he said.
In particular, Guellner said adversaries are cloning websites, through doctored screenshots or by creating website addresses that resemble the sites they are imitating, but with a slightly different address and fake information.
“That is a very good way to reach an audience that is unknowingly exposed to this content.”
In addition, countries have been using their embassies abroad to put out messaging that host countries have tried to suppress.
Last week, the investigative news site Bellingcat revealed that a video purporting to show Ukrainian soldiers harassing a Russian-speaking woman had been filmed within Russian-controlled territory.
The video was posted on social media by Russia’s embassy in the U.K., which Guellner says is part of a trend or Russian embassies posting content that wouldn’t get through traditional channels, such as videos from the channel RT that countries have banned for spreading falsehoods.
He said the social media of Chinese embassies have sometimes echoed the storylines Moscow is trying to advance, but on a selective basis.
The goal, in the case of Russia, is to disavow people of the notion of objective truth, to sow chaos and mistrust in institutions such as media outlets.
“Disinformation is not just about transporting fake news ΓÇª there can be also these effects to mislead, in the end to distract and to undermine trust,” he said.
“It’s not only the point of view of the Kremlin, it’s also about undermining trust in the in the entire system, in media, in what are the sources that you can trust.”
Europeans have met the challenge through three main techniques.
The first is resilience-building, such as funding media, fact-checking organizations and education initiatives, particularly on how to spot common tactics in how these narratives get amplified.
In Brussels, the EUvsDisinfo campaign publishes daily content that fact-checks Russian messaging, and gives a platform for non-governmental groups to share ways to test claims that show up in disinformation campaigns.
That involves more frequent messaging than Global Affairs Canada occasionally fact-checking information put out by Kremlin-affiliated media, which Russia’s embassy in Ottawa often responds to with its own allegations of fake news.
The EU’s second main plank, regulation, involves giving tech giants a duty to mitigate the risk of disinformation and detect campaigns coming from abroad, without having governments decade what is and isn’t fact.
“Our struggle is to find the balance, between our very, very important value of keeping free speech — of not touching it, of not compromising it in whatever form or shape — but not falling into the trap that our openness and the protection of freedom of speech does not become the problem,” Guellner said.
The third is diplomatic engagement, by working with like-minded countries to compare the phenomenon and what tools are working. Guellner said his visit to Ottawa touched on everything from artificial intelligence to the security implications of information manipulation in regions like Africa.
“We have not yet brought all these different strands together,” Guellner said of the three approaches.
“There is not one measure that will address it. You need to think big and broad; it’s not very sexy.”
Guellner said Ottawa is doing a lot to research trends and co-operate with partner countries, but he said more could be done to inform the public.
“I wouldn’t say Canada’s behind; definitely not,” he said.
“We feel very close with Canada’s position because we have always wanted to find a good balance, between protecting freedom of speech and at the same time, to do something that really has an impact.”
Guellner said the most important thing for Canada is to have an informed population who understands disinformation techniques and methods, the actors behind it, and the nuance that disinformation is often more about context than flat-out inaccuracies.
Media literacy groups like MediaSmarts have tried to raise this issue, such as through testimony to MPs studying foreign interference. However, those committee appearances have been largely overshadowed by immediate concerns over what activities foreign diplomats have been up to in Canada.
Guellner said public awareness is particularly important amid weekly allegations of Beijing meddling in Canadian elections, and Ottawa accusing Russia and Iran of attempting to do so.
“Every public debate is, in a way, sharpening or at least increasing awareness,” he said.
“It is an issue of security for our societies, for our democracies.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2023
Social Media Can Harm Kids. Could New Regulations Help? – Scientific American
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This week Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released a warning about the risks that social media presents to the mental health of children and teenagers. Adolescent mental health has been declining for years, and an increasing amount of research suggests that social media platforms could be partially to blame. But experts continue to debate just how much impact they have—and whether new and proposed laws will actually improve the situation or will end up infringing on free speech without addressing the root of the problem.
Numerous studies demonstrate that adolescent rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm and suicide have skyrocketed in the U.S. and elsewhere since around the time that smartphones and social media became ubiquitous. In fact, in the U.S., suicide is now the leading cause of death for people aged 13 to 14 and the second-leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24. In October 2021 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a “national state of emergency in children’s mental health,” stating that the COVID pandemic had intensified an already existing crisis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a similar warning in 2022, after the agency found that nearly half of high school students reported feeling persistently “sad or hopeless” during the previous year. According to the CDC, LGBTQ and female teens appear to be suffering particularly poor mental health.
Yet the role social media plays has been widely debated. Some researchers, including Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Jonathan Haidt of New York University, have sounded the alarm, arguing that social media provides the most plausible explanation for problems such as enhanced teen loneliness. Other researchers have been more muted. In 2019 Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Social Media Lab at Stanford University, and his colleagues completed a meta-analysis of 226 scientific papers dating back to 2006 (the year Facebook became available to the public). They concluded that social media use was associated with a slight increase in depression and anxiety but also commensurate improvements in feelings of belonging and connectedness.
“At that time, I thought of them as small effects that could balance each other out,” Hancock says. Since then, however, additional studies have poured in—and he has grown a bit more concerned. Hancock still believes that, for most people most of the time, the effects of social media are minor. He says that sleep, diet, exercise and social support, on the whole, impact psychological health more than social media use. Nevertheless, he notes, social media can be “psychologically very detrimental” when it’s used in negative ways—for instance, to cyberstalk former romantic partners. “You see this with a lot of other addictive behaviors like gambling, for example,” Hancock says. “Many people can gamble, and it’s not a problem. But for a certain subset, it’s really problematic.”
Some recent studies have attempted to clarify the link between social media and mental health, asking, for instance, whether social media use is causing depression or whether people are being more active on social media because they’re depressed. In an attempt to present causal evidence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Alexey Makarin and two of his colleagues compared the staggered rollout of Facebook across various U.S. colleges from 2004 to 2006 with mental health surveys taken by students at that time. Their study, published in 2022, found that swollen rates of depression and anxiety, as well as diminished academic performance, followed Facebook’s arrival. Makarin says much of the harm they documented came from social comparisons: students viewed the online profiles of their peers and believed them to “[have] nicer lives, party more often, have more friends and look better than them.” Facebook’s parent company Meta did not responded to requests for comment by press time.
Other studies have obtained similar results. In one paper, participants were paid to deactivate Facebook for four weeks prior to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections and reported experiencing improved happiness and life satisfaction when they weren’t on the platform. And in February 2023 researchers at Swansea University in Wales found likely physical health benefits, including a boost to the functioning of the immune system, when social media use was reduced by as little as 15 minutes per day.
“In total, there’s a more and more coherent picture that, indeed, social media has a negative impact on mental health,” Makarin says. “We are not saying that social media can explain 100 percent of the rise of mental health issues…. But it could potentially explain a sizeable portion.”
Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association (APA), which recently released recommendations for adolescent social media use, points out that there’s nothing inherently harmful or beneficial about social media. “If I’m 12, and I’m reading Scientific American and going on social media to talk with my friends about how interesting the articles are,” he says, then that’s a far cry from “going on a site that’s showing me how to cut myself and hide it from my parents.” He suggests that social media companies should take down the potentially harmful content, letting youth use social media more safely.
In addition to toxic content, Prinstein worries about the effects of social media on young people’s sleep—and therefore brain development. “No kid should be on their phone after 9 P.M.,” he says, “unless they’re going to sleep well into the morning.” But actually closing down the social apps and putting that phone down is difficult, Prinstein says. This is in part because of the design of these platforms, which aim to hold users’ attention for as long as possible. Kris Perry, executive director of the nonprofit Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development and a former senior adviser to California governor Gavin Newsom, agrees. Besides being sucked in by app design, she says, adolescents fear disappointing their peers. “Kids feel genuinely scared that they’ll lose friendships, that they won’t be popular, if they don’t like their friends’ posts instantly,” Perry says.
The flood of new studies on social media’s harms is spurring lawmakers to action. Except for the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which passed in 1998—years prior to the advent of smartphones or social media—the U.S. Congress has never really involved itself with what kids do online. “It’s kind of the Wild West out there,” Prinstein says of the lack of oversight. Since around 2021, however, when a Facebook whistleblower testified that the company knew its platforms harmed youth mental health—allegations that Facebook denied—both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have moved to follow Europe’s lead on stronger Internet regulations. On the federal level, members of Congress have introduced a slew of overlapping bills: at least two would bar social media use outright for kids under a certain age, while others would restrict targeted advertising and data collection, give young users more control over their personal information, prioritize parental supervision, facilitate additional research and hold social media companies liable for toxic content viewed by minors. Though nothing has yet passed, President Joe Biden seems largely onboard with these measures. In his February State of the Union speech, Biden said, “We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.” And on the same day as the surgeon general’s warning this week, the White House commissioned a task force to analyze how to improve the health, safety and privacy of kids who go online.
Meanwhile state legislatures have jumped into the fray. California recently passed a law designed to protect children’s online data. Montana banned TikTok. And Arkansas and Utah mandated, among other things, that social media companies verify the ages of their users and that minors get parental consent to open an account. Similar bills are pending in many other states.
Of the federal bills currently pending, arguably the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) has gained the most attention thus far. Sponsored by Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the bill would require social media companies to shield minors from content deemed dangerous. It also aims to safeguard personal information and rein in addictive product features such as endless scrolling and autoplaying. Supporters of KOSA include Children and Screens, the APA and the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with several parents whose kids died by suicide after being relentlessly cyberbullied.
On the opposing side, organizations that include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit, and the American Civil Liberties Union have come out against KOSA, stating that it might increase online surveillance and censorship. For instance, these parties have raised concerns that state attorneys general could weaponize the act to suppress content about, say, transgender health care or abortion. This is particularly problematic because it could negate some of the positive effects social media has on teen mental health.
Researchers acknowledge that social media can aid kids by, among other things, connecting them with like-minded people and facilitating emotional support. This appears to be especially important for “folks from underrepresented backgrounds,” Prinstein says, “whether you’re the only person around who looks like you or the only person with your identity in your family.” If KOSA leads to the restriction of speech about LGBTQ issues, for instance, it could be detrimental to members of that community. “That support, and even accessing information, is a great benefit,” Prinstein says. “There really was no other way to get that resource in the olden times.”
Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that rather than a bill like KOSA, he would prefer to see stronger antitrust laws that might, for example, increase competition among platforms, which could encourage each one to improve its user experience in order to win out. More options, he says, would force social media companies “to deal with the ways they ignore user interest and desire and safety and privacy.”
As the debate continues over the best legislative fixes, essentially all the researchers Scientific American spoke to agree on one idea: more information about these platforms can help us figure out exactly how they’re causing harms. To that end, KOSA would mandate that the social media companies open up their closely held datasets to academics and nonprofits. “There’s a lot we don’t know,” Hancock says, “because we’re prevented.”
IF YOU NEED HELP
If you or someone you know is struggling or having thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use the online Lifeline Chat.
Saskatoon pizza shop overwhelmed by orders after heartfelt social media plea
A Saskatoon pizza shop had to shut its doors after a social media post led to an overwhelming number of orders.
“Four o’clock was normal, then by 4:20 everything started hitting real hard, real fast,” Doug Grevna said.
“By 5:00 we were 400 per cent busier than normal.”
The 8th Street Panago location was originally slated to provide pizzas for a family night planned for École St. Matthew School.
However, the event was cancelled following the tragic death of Natasha Fox, a teacher at the school who died in a collision with a cement truck while cycling.
Even though the dough has been prepared for the large order, the shop cancelled it at no charge, given the circumstances.
Moved by the gesture, a parent took to social media asking people to order from the shop so the dough wouldn’t spoil.
“Please consider ordering pizza from Panago on the 8th tonight so that the dough doesn’t spoil and they don’t take a financial hit due to wasted supplies,” the post said.
While Grevna is adamant that he never thought twice about cancelling the order at no cost, he is touched by what happened next.
“It’s actually amazing because we just sort of said … ‘no worries,'” Grevna said.
Grevna had made an offhand comment when the cancellation came in that if the school could send a few customers their way it would help the keep the dough from going to waste — but he only expected a handful of orders.
“Then it just got crazy. It was unreal,” he said.
“Our printer never stopped and we couldn’t even keep up.”
With more and more orders pouring in as the social media post was shared throughout the city, Grevna had to shut the store down temporarily.
“I’ve never really closed before because we were so busy. But there’s no way we could keep up. Our computers only let us go up to 120 minutes for an expected wait time,” he said.
“We had to go beyond that. So we just had to kind of shut it down for a bit before we opened again about a hour and a half later.”
He said they doubled the sales of a normal Thursday night.
“The community just came in waves,” he said.
“It was just overwhelming and we’re super appreciative.”
Rising racing star Lindsay Brewer says she was criticized by female drivers over swimsuit social media posts
Lindsay Brewer is one of the most popular race car drivers on social media, boasting more than 2.1 million followers on Instagram and over 629,000 on TikTok.
Brewer is currently racing in USF Pro Championships 2000 with a dream to eventually get to IndyCar. But even before she stepped onto the Indy track, she told The Daily Mail in an interview published Sunday that she’s already been hearing negativity from race car drivers about her social media activity.
The 26-year-old driver said she reached out to other female professional drivers and was surprised to hear some of the advice they shared with her.
“I’ve talked to a few female drivers in the past who were older and I asked for advice.… and they were like, ‘Stop posting swimwear photos, this just makes women make look so bad in the industry,’” she told the outlet.
“If you’re truly about feminism and women in the industry, you should allow them to be who they wanna be and not put them in that box. Like you should not say, ‘OK you can’t wear makeup, you have to dress a certain way, you can’t post certain things.’
“I think that’s honestly anti-feminist.”
Brewer dismissed the notion she’s just an “influencer pretending to be a race car driver.” She said she got her start on the track in go-karts when she was 11. She said racing was something she was passionate about and was able to take a few years off for college and build a brand to help fund her racing.
Brewer finished 15th in the standings last season and is in 19th so far this season. She said some of the negativity has gone away and vowed to never change who she is or how she promotes herself on social media.
“I will always have my hair bleached, I’ll have my fake nails, but yet I can still be a bada– driver. I don’t wanna be put into certain categories. I still can take care of myself and look ‘glamorous’ and girly, but still be quick on the track,” Brewer added.
Brewer had two top 10 finishes last season – at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a street race in Toronto.
Brewer’s had a tough season this year, mostly finishing in the bottom half of the standings.
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