Fact and fiction in the age of doubt: Q&A with Shachi Kurl

Shachi Kurl, President, Angus Reid Institute
Shachi Kurl, President, Angus Reid Institute

South Island Prosperity Partnership’s Rising Economy 2022 conference (Nov 15 to 17) posits that while we’re still in pandemic recovery we’re also embroiled in the harsh reality of global effects on our local economy (war, climate change, rising inflation). But it does so on an optimistic note, using the theme of Clarity to discuss solutions to problems while exploring opportunities in our new normal to grow prosperity.

And, in having those bold conversations, it leaves room for the difficult ones, chief of which is our fractured society and how we can maintain equilibrium in a world where fiction masquerades as fact, and people believe opinions over science.

In tackling that topic, the non-profit, member-based organization will host Shachi Kurl as its keynote speaker for the conference this year. Kurl is President of the Angus Reid Institute, North America’s premier non-partisan, non-profit research and public polling organization. The Institute helps debunk harmful myths and expand public knowledge.

Kurl is regularly called upon by the media for her unique insights, including on CBC’s At Issue and is the recipient of the prestigious Jack Webster Award for Best TV Reporting.

The former political journalist will share how to get to the heart of our major cultural, economic and political shifts, and how to find common ground during times of upheaval.

Douglas talked to Kurl about the societal shift in the way we treat each other online, and what media – and the public – can do about it.

Would you say we’re living in an era of misinformation and the great divide when it comes to communicating with each other?

Absolutely. We’re living in a time where we talk past each other rather than talking to each other in a way that is accelerated by the gasoline that is social media – most especially by politicians who have figured out that the way to raise money and identify viable voters is to double and triple down on the messaging of division, because that pays off for them in terms of electoral results.

How does the media fit into the ever-widening distance between fact and opinion, and the sense that now, more than ever, we seem to accept opinion as fact?

I remember learning about the Overton Window (otherwise known as the Window of Discourse), which was this idea that that media reports things through a frame, through a certain lens. And that things that are deemed to be outside of that lens are not platformed.

Right now we’re seeing a rise in hate speech and anti-Semitism that in the last couple of decades may not have gotten as much play because the gatekeepers as it were, the editors and the reporters, decided not to platform this kind of toxicity.

Well, the Overton Window doesn’t exist anymore. Everybody’s looking out their own window in a different room in the house and seeing whatever they want, because the ability to curate a specific message that speaks to you or resonates with you has been made possible by the devolution of mainstream news organizations.

We’ve cut the cord on traditional news streams. The internet has enabled us to find information and entertainment to consume that we’ve perhaps never had access to before. And in some ways that’s great when it comes to art, literature, showcasing new voices, diversifying our consumption and widening our horizons. But at the same time, the ugliness of the fringe element has been pulled in as well.

It also feels today as if we’re in an era of constant moral and righteous indignation. There is a high sense of people feeling aggrieved in this country.

We usually reference the ‘silent majority’ in discussions around loud complaints on social media to reference the fact that the haters and the complainers are in the minority, and that most people don’t feel that way. Is that still the case or is society shifting to be angrier, less forgiving, more hate-filled?

That’s an interesting question, and that’s where public opinion polling is helpful because it helps us understand what the saturation or the impact point of all the noise on social media is, and how it’s punching through, and then often how it’s not punching through.

It is notable because at times there is a disconnect between what you consume on social media and what most people believe. One of the first times I really saw that was when we saw the passage of anti-terror legislation in this country. So much of the narrative covered the protests around it – and this was around the beginning of the end of the Stop Harper movement. Stephen Harper was still Prime Minister at the time we polled Canadians and walked them through different pieces of legislation.

We discovered most of the people we polled, more than three quarters, supported the broad strokes of the legislation. There were elements of it, around police oversight and civil liberties, where Canadians said, no, we think these pieces go too far, but overall people were okay with it. And until we published that data, the presumption was that there was mass opposition to it because the mass opposition was well organized, vocal and passionate and a significant segment of the population, but not the majority.

Do you think people are more afraid now to speak up on social media, to push back against hate, because they worry that they’ll be under attack too?

It’s hard to speak up now – whether it’s on social media, writing a column, being an outlier voice, being a woman, being a person of colour. We haven’t figured out that balance where voices can be heard and debated without being so vicious in our responses.

It’s a work in progress, creating that balance. We haven’t figured out how to enact good bystander behavior that protects those who stand up against hate speech.

What is it that that grants you protection in this country, currently? I think about Kanye. How long did it take before finally brands woke up and said no to his antisemitism, and then suddenly that gets rooted in a conversation around anti-black behavior versus antisemitic behavior, which now pits more people against each other.

All of which to say, if you’re wealthy, you can get away with a lot. You can say a lot because there is a lot more protection for you if you are someone like Elon Musk. And for someone without the protection of wealth and privilege, it can be very ugly.

You also have to weigh the risks of push back with the risks of amplifying the toxicity. A lot of people self-censor or they’re very cautious about how they defend or how they become allies. It takes a brave individual to be out there demonstrating allyship on a regular and consistent basis, because it does open them up for a whole world of hurt, especially on social media.

Do you think the rise of hate speech and toxicity online is mostly due to bots?

I’m not enough of an expert in that area to chime in, but we’re in the middle of a living experiment. Elon Musk has taken over Twitter. He’s firing the content moderators. He’s firing a lot of the gatekeepers around what’s acceptable speech. But he’s also going through the process of removing bots. I’ve lost a bunch of followers since he took ownership.

And when you look at accounts that have hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, there’s a significant number who are just trolls talking to each other or bots talking to each other. I think it’s a bit of a known unknown. Was it just the bots algorithmically programmed to be nasty? Or is it people. We’re likely to find out now.

We’re seeing a huge swing of the pendulum from liberal-leaning, or middle-leaning, to the right. Will the pendulum swing the other way, where people become more reasonable, less critical and judgmental of each other on social media?

I think if people want that reasonable place, they need to speak up and say it. And they need to hold their leaders, their political leaders, their business leaders accountable to it. Politicians have spent so much time toxically dividing constituents and electorates and populations. And it is irresponsible and it’s unconscionable.

If people want to return to a reasonable space, they need to hold their leadership accountable around that. And they need to say, stop playing the politics of division. We have seen so many moments in opportunities that have been missed where our leaders – and I’ll give examples of this during my talk – could have had a moment to pull people together and instead just stoked the fire in their own best interests.

You talk about the pendulum swinging, I think it’s fractured, and it’s pulling people to either side. I’m always hopeful we can get to a more reasonable place, but I also know we take it for granted how close we can come to wrecking it for ourselves unless we start to pull it back together.

What role can media take in repairing a fractured society?

I have a tremendous amount of empathy and a tremendous amount of respect for those who are still fighting the good fight in newsrooms. But there has been so much lost there.

Newsrooms have lost experience, perspective, and look at who is on the front line of reporting now because of cutbacks that see media lose the wisdom of experience, of age. It’s often very young people who don’t have the life experience involved to have perspective. As they are experiencing it for the first time, they are reporting all the feels that they feel. And there’s nobody in the editorial meeting who can call for the moment of reflection, to look back on our past, see where things fit, how to respond.

We need to bring some context and perspective back into it. We need to keep our journalists in newsrooms for longer so that they can be that voice of seasoned experience and maturity. Newsrooms carry so much more responsibility today. The weight they carry is a burden. And we need to support them.

As consumers, there are trusted newsrooms and then there’s something you read online on a blog – which are you going to share or believe? What are you being conscious about in terms of where you’re turning for your sources? And in turn newsrooms need to check themselves from running away with one-sided narratives.

Rising Economy 2022 takes place in person on November 15 and 26 (ticketed), and via Zoom on November 17 (free). In-person events take place at the Songhees Wellness Centre in Victoria. For a complete list of speakers and to register:  ourrisingeconomy.com.