Fake News Through Private Messaging Apps Hitting Canadian’s Smartphones


Thunder Bay – Technology – Social media apps and our smartphones have become almost fixtures in our hands. From our smartphones, we get news, information and disinformation too.

More than eight in ten people in Canada use online private messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp; and over half are receiving messages about the news or current events at least weekly. Without greater transparency from the private platforms themselves and investment in digital literacy efforts, this growing vector for online news will continue to spread disinformation and other online harms.

The Cybersecure Policy Exchange at Ryerson University analyzed the role of private messaging in Canada, including user exposure to disinformation, hate speech and spam, and recommended potential policy and technical approaches to mitigate harms.

Their new report, Private Messages, Public Harms, used results from a representative survey conducted in March 2021 of 2,500 people in Canada and found that:

  • 46% report receiving private messages that they suspect are false at least monthly;
  • 39% report receiving private messages that they initially believe to be true, but later find out are false, at least monthly;
  • 21% said they rely on private messages for news — up from 11% in 2019;
  • Those who use private messages as a news source see false information more frequently;
  • Those who believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories are significantly more likely to regularly receive news through WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger;
  • A majority have about the same level of trust in news that they receive through messaging apps as they do in news from websites, television or social media; and
  • 26% receive messages containing hate speech at least monthly, with rates higher among people of colour.

The spread of disinformation and other online harms poses risks to social cohesion, public safety and democracy; and, as a result experts and policymakers have raised calls for technical and regulatory changes. At the same time, concerns have also been raised regarding over-censorship of content and that such regulatory changes may negatively impact freedoms and rights, particularly the right to free expression.

This paper analyzes steps that governments and platforms around the world have taken to mitigate online harms, including adding labels and limits on message forwarding to decrease ‘viralality’, limits on group size; mechanisms to enable users to report harmful content to moderators; and features to encourage users to verify information they receive.

“To date, Canadian regulatory proposals to regulate big tech have focused on social media content that remains publicly accessible, but disinformation spreading on private messaging apps is a growing threat to our democracy. The federal government should join other international jurisdictions in regulating greater transparency into how online private messaging apps can manifest in public harms,” says Sam Andrey, Director of Policy and Research, Ryerson Leadership Lab.

To better understand and mitigate these complex challenges they offer three recommendations for the Government of Canada:

  1. Require transparency from large online platforms to better understand online harms through private messaging;
  2. Invest in research and innovation specific to disinformation and other online harms on private messaging platforms in Canada;
  3. Make investments in policy-informed digital literacy efforts that build resilience to disinformation through private messaging platforms.

The full findings from Private Messages, Public Harms are available at: https://www.cybersecurepolicy.ca/. Abacus Data administered an online survey on behalf of the Cybersecure Policy Exchange to 2,500 residents of Canada over the age of 16 between March 17 and 22, 2021. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based sample of the same size would be ±2%, 19 times out of 20.

The Cybersecure Policy Exchange is an initiative from Ryerson University, dedicated to advancing effective and innovative public policy in cybersecurity and digital privacy. The Cybersecure Policy Exchange is powered by RBC through Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst and the Ryerson Leadership Lab. 

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