Victoria Romero and Emily Tang are university students and members of the National Youth Advisory Council for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. Matthew Johnson is the director of education for MediaSmarts. Scott Neigh interviews them about issues of mis- and disinformation when it comes to sexual health and rights, and about this year’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Week (or SRH Week) campaign.
Action Canada engages in public education, health promotion, service provision, and policy advocacy related to sexual and reproductive health and rights in Canada and globally. MediaSmarts focuses on promoting digital media literacy among youth by providing a wide range of educational resources for teachers and parents, and to a lesser extent for youth themselves.
SRH Week is an annual campaign from Action Canada that focuses on a topic related to sexual health and rights. It offers events and resources on that topic to the general public, to health care providers, and to other audiences. This year’s SRH Week runs from February 13 to 17. Its theme will be “Get the Facts!”, and it includes a focus on the problem of mis- and disinformation.
The information environment that surrounds us today is, to put it mildly, challenging. Not that there is anything new about dominant ways of knowing the world that exalt the already-powerful and further marginalize the oppressed, and there is a long history of the use of disinformation as a tool to accomplish nefarious ends. But as technology has shifted, we have ended up with an information system that is more chaotic, harder to navigate, and seemingly more vulnerable to manipulation than ever before. Mainstream institutions that produce and circulate knowledge – like schools, newspapers, and governments – continue their role in reproducing settler colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, cissexism, and more. But there seems to be more space today for reactionary movements, from last decade’s “GamerGate” to today’s growing far right, to use sensationalism, distortion, and deception to grow their base and make all of those things sharply worse.
The prevalence of misinformation and disinformation when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights is also nothing new. Whether we found out about them via formal school curriculum, chains of speculative whispering among peers, or awkward conversations with parents, very few of us have ever been lucky enough while growing up to have opportunities to learn about bodies, sexuality, relationships, and all of the messy social stuff surrounding them in accurate, comprehensive, just, and liberatory ways. And what is available, in the words of Tang, is “very often very cis, hetero, and white oriented.”
In some ways, you could argue that things have gotten better over time – with the internet, there is more opportunity for young people to seek out good information for themselves, compared to past decades when the only options were to ask an authority figure, cross your fingers that your school might be one of the few to offer decent sex ed, or work up the nerve to see what you could find in a public library. But while it may be more possible to find good information today than in the past, the good stuff is often diluted in a sea of information that is wrong, harmful, and even malicious. Romero said, “While there is a lot of very good factual information [online], there’s also a ton of misinformation and disinformation. And one thing that I’ve seen personally is there is a large lack in understanding of how to tell the difference between the two.”
Barriers remain a factor, whether that is the uneven availability of internet access or the fear of getting caught searching particular topics. MediaSmarts leads the longest running research project in the world on youth and digital media literacy, and Johnson said that only around 1 in 5 youth in Canada today report seeking out information about sexual health and relationship issues online. The rate is about twice that for queer and trans youth, which Johnson said suggests there is an even greater lack of good information in other sources that is relevant to their needs.
In addition, sex-related misinformation circulates widely due to things like the reach of social media influencers who just don’t know what they’re talking about and the pervasiveness of clickbait. Memes and jokes that are stigmatizing, oppressive, or just plain wrong travel far and fast. Of course, it can be really hard to know where to look for good information, and it can be hard to recognize it when you find it. And finally, there is the deliberately circulated disinformation, particularly from sources pushing a range of right and far-right political agendas – from the demonization of LGBTQ people, to lies about abortion, to all sorts of things that are meant to amplify sexual stigma and shame.
Johnson agreed that there are people and organizations that are “intentionally promoting disinformation about sexual health topics – whether that is disinformation around transgender issues, whether that’s disinformation around sexual orientation, whether it’s disinformation around abortion.” He continued, “There are certain groups that are targeted more often. And also groups that are more often, you might say, demonized – groups about whom there is more disinformation being spread and where there are organized campaigns of disinformation aimed at them. And who are in many cases used as rhetorical tools for broader political ends.”
Overall, Johnson said that MediaSmarts’ research indicates that young people are using “more and better strategies” to verify information that they find compared to even a few years ago, and are more likely to verify sources outside of school contexts. Nonetheless, often those strategies are not well suited to today’s information environment, rife as it is with deliberate deception.
Older strategies, which are still often taught in schools, include investigating what an organization says about themselves on their website, “which made sense in an information environment where you could assume that people weren’t just flat out lying about who they were or just things in general.” Today, MediaSmarts focuses on teaching what Johnson calls “lateral reading, where you actually don’t take the source’s word for anything, and you don’t look too closely at the source until you verify that it is reliable.” Investigating the sources of disinformation can help people understand larger trends in who is targeted and why, and the political motivations behind disinformation campaigns. With a laugh, Johnson said, “The demand for mis- and disinformation is equal across the spectrum, but the supply absolutely is not.”
An additional challenge has to do with how youth relate to sources that they encounter online. Johnson said, “The research has shown that for most young people, in fact, the issue is not that they are not skeptical enough, but that they are equally skeptical of all sources – what’s sometimes called trust compression, where because they don’t know how to verify a reliable source, and because they’ve been told – in many cases, many, many times – not to trust everything they see online, but they haven’t been told how to find out what they can trust, they’re equally skeptical of every source.” This can lead youth to select sources in other ways, like their personal feelings or the strength of their parasocial relationship with the content creator in question.
Johnson said, “That’s why most of our materials, including our materials about verifying information on sexual health, don’t just look at how to debunk false information or recognize unreliable sources, but also focus on how to tell when something is reliable and how to find reliable sources.”
This year’s SRH Week is intervening in all of this. It is circulating resources with inclusive, evidence-based information about sexual and reproductive health, and offering supports to people to help them develop media literacy skills for figuring out how to navigate our information environment around these topics. And MediaSmarts has its own spectrum of resources and programming, both for media literacy in general and a few specific to questions of sexual health.
Romero argued that it is important to have a civil society organization like Action Canada putting on this kind of campaign, rather than counting on mainstream institutions like schools, governments, or the mass media, given “how especially younger demographics are viewing information, perhaps from bodies of authority like the government or, you know, your health services in your province.” She continued, “I find that a lot of younger people are a bit apprehensive to our traditional structures and systems in society … rooted in colonial violence. And how there has been a certain bias in a lot of information coming from authority for a very long time.”
Tang added, “Mass media and also school systems are often funded by the government. And so there is potentially some bias there. … Depending on which school system you went to, you might have been taught maybe information that is often misleading.” It is important, therefore, for there to be initiatives that communicate information about sexual health and rights in ways that are “inclusive” and “accessible.”
And of course there is value not just to consuming better information and to becoming a better consumer of information, but to intervening ourselves in the information landscape. Tang, for instance, emphasized the importance of ensuring that there are people with a range of experiences of oppression in positions of “power and authority” within the institutions in our information system. Romero argued for “involvement from the communities, or the demographic, or groups that the information or the source is trying to reach.”
Romero said, “If you know an organization is putting out perhaps not disinformation, but maybe misinformation around abortion or … emergency contraceptives, then maybe we should be taking a look at why, or how. What is their motivation behind that?”
“Why are we allowing these bodies to put out this information?” Romero continued. “Like, do they have a harmful motive? Are they intending to shame people? Are they intending to perhaps direct people to a certain, you know, moral standard? And it just really comes down to questioning why and pushing bodies on why they are still continuing to do so.”
Johnson said, “A part of this is teaching young people about their power as as citizens and as consumers. That one of the benefits of being online is that we all have a voice. And we can use that voice to change things in our online spaces. We can use that voice to change the values of our online spaces. We can use that voice to change the ratio of good to bad information. Because our information ecosystem isn’t affected only by our decision not to share bad information, but we can actively improve it by sharing good information.”
As well, he continued, “We can also use digital tools to participate as citizens, to change how governments do things, to change curriculum.” He cited as an example high school students who successfully organized in Ontario a number of years ago to get consent education added to health curriculum. “A really important part of digital media literacy is teaching young people and all people that they have the power to use digital tools to make a difference.”
For Tang, it comes down to this: “How do we make [sexual health] information more inclusive for everyone – [more] trans inclusive … more pro-choice … more culturally sensitive and inclusive?”
Episodes of Talking Radical Radio on SRH Week in earlier years include “Next steps for sexual and reproductive rights activism in Canada,” “Centring BIPOC youth in questions of sexual health and rights,” “Sex ed, health, and justice,” and “Sex positive parenting and social justice.”
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