The last couple of years have not been particularly great for the dissemination of news in North America.
First, we went through extremely divisive political campaigns in the United States and Canada, where supporters of a particular candidate or party consistently put down all others.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated the delivery of “alternative facts” meant to confuse the public at a time when accuracy was – and still is – paramount.
When Research Co. and Glacier Media recently asked Canadians about their experiences using social media, all of the problems we originally identified in 2019 persist today. However, as was the case a couple of years ago, members of specific generations are finding it easier to discover, tune out and report toxicity.
In a country that prides itself on being inclusive and caring, the proportion of comments and posts that are downright insulting is troublesome. More than a quarter of Canadian social media users (27%) say they found racist content on their social media feed over the past year – a proportion that rises to 39% among those aged 18 to 34 and to 38% in British Columbia.
There have been many efforts on the part of social media companies to eradicate racism online – some laudable, others simply lip service. The fact is that social media users in British Columbia are more likely to be encountering racism in their feeds. Part of this may be related to a visceral reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, we learned that 24% of British Columbians of East Asian and South Asian descent endured someone directing racial slurs at them.
In the past 12 months, about one in five Canadian social media users also found comments that were offensive to people with disabilities (20%) or that they considered homophobic (19%). On both instances, the country’s youngest adults were more likely to be aware of this questionable content.
In the early stages, social media companies were able to self-regulate because they had a limited number of adopters. Now, most of them rely on a series of mechanisms that the users themselves have to understand in order to remove users who are breaking the rules.
There may still be an issue with Canadians not wanting to be “that person” and calling attention to what other people on Facebook or Twitter are doing. Only 23% of Canadian social media users say they reported someone for offensive content or comments.
As expected, Canadian social media users aged 18 to 34 are more likely to take action to deal with offensive posts (34%) than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (21%) and aged 55 and over (13%). The country’s youngest adults grew up with these platforms and are willing to play a role in keeping them clean. And while 27% of Canadian social media users have deleted one of their own posts after giving it a second thought, the proportion rises to 38% for those aged 18 to 34.
With this context in hand, we see that almost two in five Canadian social media users (39%) have found links to stories on current affairs that were obviously false (sometimes referred to as “fake news”) on their feed. This is, regrettably, not much of a change from what we saw the last time we checked in September 2019 (41%).
In Ontario, the proportion of Canadian social media users who have been sent to fake news by their social media feed is the highest in the entire country at 47%. The fact that we were in field at a time when Canada’s most populous province was considering tighter restrictions to deal with the pandemic may be directly related to this eye-catching spike. British Columbians were not immune to recent pandemic-related invention, as a message purportedly claiming that “Bonny [sic] Henry” would implement a severe lockdown made the rounds last week.
As was the case in 2019, we continue to see people having a tough time pinpointing where messages are coming from. For 71% of Canadian social media users, it is difficult to discern which social media accounts are real and which ones are fake. The appetite for banning “anonymous” social media accounts is equally high, with 69% of respondents saying people should comment and post only if they use their real name and likeness.
Almost two-thirds of Canadian social media users (65%) would also like to bring an end to “creeping”, and want platforms to always allow users to see who has viewed their profiles, photos and posts. In addition, 60% of Canadian social media users believe politicians who have a social media account should not be able to block users from engaging with them. The mute button may work remarkably well on some platforms for both sides.
Sadly, not much has changed when it comes to the credibility and value of social media interactions. In spite of added attention to practices and standards, and in the middle of a pandemic, the amount of “fake news” is practically as high as it was in 2019, and Canadians continue to encounter offensive content.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from April 16 to April 18, 2021, among 845 adult social media users in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.