Cities must learn to deal with misinformation
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One of the best ways to slow the spread of false or misleading information is to stop it in its tracks early on, and it appears the City of Brandon has recognized this.
The city recently announced it would continue with public consultations on its 30-year development plan after taking a brief hiatus last month following a raucous open house held at the West End Community Centre in March.
At that open house, a number of city employees were confronted by a group of residents who believed the new city plan was an effort to turn Brandon into a 15-minute city, among other things.
The 15-minute city is an idea used in building communities where when followed, most things the average person needs are accessible by travelling 15 minutes or less. But some conspiracy theorists believe this is an attempt to confine people to their neighbourhoods and cut people off from one another.
However, the city has repeatedly said this is not the goal of its 30-year development plan. Last week, it released a public service announcement clearly outlining the purpose of the plan.
“What the Brandon City Plan is: a policy and land-use framework, a plan to make neighbourhoods more walkable, inclusive and socially, financially and economically resilient,” the statement said.
“What the Brandon City Plan is not: a lockdown measure, a surveillance strategy, a tool to enforcement restrictive measures or boundaries.”
City manager Ron Bowles initially described the encounter at the West End open house as “highly charged and racist,” but the city later released a toned-down statement detailing the interaction as “inappropriate and unsafe behaviour.”
Now, the city will move forward with its consultations but in a more structured fashion to prevent outbursts like this from happening again. The next event, happening May 18, will be a moderated public meeting. Subsequent workshops will require interested participants to register ahead of time. Then, a formal public hearing is scheduled for this fall, during which residents can submit final thoughts before city council votes on the plan.
Of course, with a plan like this that will determine Brandon’s growth over the next three decades, it’s important all area residents have an opportunity to express their concerns and desires. However, the way to do that is not through the use of fear and intimidation.
With so many social-media and online platforms accessible at our fingertips, it is easier than ever to share information with countless people. And because there is little moderation on these platforms, people can say essentially whatever they please. That is a recipe for disaster, and this is likely a permanent consequence of the advancement of social technology, which is why we must learn to shut down false information at the first encounter.
The city acted quickly to dispel the myths surrounding its development plan and pivot public engagement events to ensure its employees feel safe and respected, as well as to create opportunities for civil dialogue between residents and city staff.
It is unfortunate not all elected officials in today’s world act similarly; some even lean into such conspiracies and mis/disinformation to score political points, and they are exploiting people’s fears in the process, ultimately widening the gap between people whose beliefs and values differ.
While the City of Brandon has made missteps in the past in terms of adequately communicating with residents (such as with the southwest lift station project and its related $30-million loan), it seems it has learned from its mistakes and is making more of an effort to be transparent for this particular project — it frequently updates its city plan website, organizes and promotes opportunities for discussion and highlights progress in the media.
That said, the City of Brandon made the right decision in quickly pausing its public consultations and stepping back to re-evaluate how it can still deliver opportunities for discussion while ensuring false information does not wreak havoc on the process.