Democracy

Canadian digital democracy: social media's impact is what we make of it

In today’s Western society, what we traditionally refer to as “the media” is a for-profit industry that sells news information to the public. Until about ten years ago, finding out about the goings-on in the world could only be achieved by turning to traditional news media sources, with private companies controlling what was effectively an information bottleneck. While overall that control is eroding, traditional news media in Canada today is still dominated by conglomerates: Post Media Network Inc., for example, owns more than half the English-language daily newspapers in Canada,i including fifteen major outlets.

However, it's now well understood that the advent of social media has revolutionized the way that news is being distributed. Since the dawn of the internet age around the turn of the millennium, news media have increasingly shifted to online platforms as a way of becoming more cost-efficient and reaching a wider audience. Now those traditional news sources also must compete with millions of social media users who, in addition to being news consumers, have the ability to produce news as well. This new paradigm will benefit Canadian democracy as long as we take the time to understand and guard against the potential harm it can do to our liberal society.

The pivot to distributed digital resources is part of a wider phenomenon, the essence of which is captured by the concept of “zero marginal cost.” Jeremy Rifkin argues that the capitalist system is being undermined by “the dramatic success of the very operating assumptions that govern it”ii: as technological productivity improves within a competitive market, the marginal costs of producing commodities and services will eventually drop to almost nothing, thereby negating the profit-margin that provides incentive for players to participate in the first place. Just as applications like Uber and Airbnb continue to put strain on the traditional taxi and hotel industries, so to are Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube beginning to obviate elements of traditional news sources. Of course, until there comes a time when social media and the personal technology that supports them advance to the point where traditional news networks are rendered obsolete, those traditional sources will survive because the market for news analysis, in addition to delivery, lives on. That's not to say that social media isn't capable of providing analysis, because anyone can volunteer that at any time by blogging or posting a YouTube video. The main hurdle for an individual trying to gain mainstream reach through social media comes down to perceived credibility. Conventional journalism faces no such burden because it’s more familiar to most people.

Despite the head-start that traditional media has over social media for providing credible news, the gap between the two is closing – both for better and for worse. Only days before polls opened in the recent Canadian federal election, every newspaper owned by Post Media Network ran a front-page advertisement endorsing a specific political party. It was a decision that reflected the private interests who own the newspapers, who were flexing their executive control over the publishing and editorial policies regardless of the personal views held by those newspapers' employees or readers. Although private actors are entitled to express their political opinions, the gesture in question amounted to a form of propaganda because it came from a purportedly objective source, and tacitly portrayed itself as speaking on behalf of the organization as a whole, including its many subsidiaries. Such a move also reflects a degree of democratic deficit in mainstream Canadian news media.

The obvious benefit of social media here is that the information bottleneck is widening as the traditional media oligopoly gradually loses its exclusive grip on providing news. From a democratic standpoint this is surely a positive trend. An eventual proliferation of news delivered instead via social media, which disperse the sources of news provision among individuals in the collaborative commons, will in theory mount a serious challenge to the traditional media oligopoly's relative stranglehold on the news market. The vitality of liberal democracy – the type of democracy that is cherished in Canada and in most of the West, and which is constrained by the rule of law and guided by a political culture that embraces pluralism – depends on a free, transparent, and ongoing public dialogue taking place so that a variety of viewpoints and policy options can be tried in the court of public opinion. News media are essential for such a conversation to be possible, because they are the channels that transmit those ideas to the public, and are the avenues through which members of the public can make collective demands of their elected representatives. Liberal democracy suffers when there's a bottleneck that narrows the spectrum of views available for public analysis. Social media has an important role to play in preventing that bottleneck from existing.

More generally, the social media revolution is facilitating public dialogue by providing a readily accessible forum that renders physical distance irrelevant. During the recent election campaign more of this public conversation played out on digital media than ever before. Certain campaign advertisements were run exclusively on YouTube, targeting a younger voting demographic. Most notably, Twitter was shown to be truly sharp at both ends: a politician looking to connect with modern voters in real time needs to have a Twitter presence; at the same time discretion is paramount, as compromising Tweets that were unearthed from the archive poisoned the election hopes of several candidates.

The advent of the social media age represents a turning point in democracy's history. It has forced a change in the way that democracy is conducted by making ordinary people privy to up-to-the-minute information around the clock, and by allowing (and encouraging) them to disseminate information to a wide audience instantly. In other words, social media is enfranchising. If you wanted to spread an idea to many people in the days before social media, you had to write an article or a book, or start a website. Those options are not necessarily accessible to everyone. Before the birth of the internet, you could listen to politicians debate one another on television or radio, but to ask them a question of your own you had to attend a debate in person, or mail in your question to the moderator or interviewer ahead of time. Earlier still, before the birth of electronic media people could only inform themselves on current events by reading the newspaper. The nature of public political life and election campaigns has evolved accordingly since then. In the present day, any candid moment or ill-timed slip of the tongue is rarely forgiven as it once might have been, and instead is available online for all to see. Today's public figures are more visible than ever, and are arguably more accountable because of it.

Liberal democracy clearly has the potential to benefit from the high degree of connectivity that digital media offer us. But we must also beware the subtle but significant ways in which liberal democracy can be damaged when citizens are constantly connected at light speed.

Although a news media oligopoly presents an opportunity to abuse power, as with Post Media’s owners, Canadian newspapers generally hold themselves to a high standard of balanced editorial integrity provided they aren’t receiving dictatorial directives to the contrary. The downside of the hyper-connectivity that social media provide is that it enables unfounded propaganda to be spread spontaneously. For instance, during the recent election campaign, debates over Canada’s refugee policy, and over whether Muslim women should have the right to wear a niqab while swearing the oath of citizenship, became hot-button issues. Many of the viewpoints that circulated on social media didn't consider the relevant evidence needed to have an informed opinion on these matters, instead often assuming the form of “memes” that essentialize and sensationalize the issues. Since young people disproportionately comprise the demographic that is active on social media, many users are impelled by deceivingly rudimentary portrayals of complex issues because they haven't yet developed or implemented the critical thinking skills needed to analyze those issues in a reasonable way. Democracy is thus left in a double-bind: on the one hand, part of Canada’s democratic deficit is due to a relatively low level of civic engagement and voter-turnout; on the other hand, encouraging increased democratic participation means the inclusion of viewpoints that are not necessarily informed by evidence, and which are particularly vulnerable to demagoguery.

Social media can easily be used with malicious intent, just as other forms of media have been used to manipulate people throughout history. Tabloid newspapers regularly print misleading and potentially libelous stories about celebrities for the sake of gossip. In the most extreme cases, we need look no further than the racist propaganda spread by newspapers during wartime to dehumanize the enemy, or the use of radio to incite genocide in Rwanda.iii Contrary to many naïve expectations during the 1990s, digital and social media are not inherently good forces for liberal democracy either – they merely facilitate further the political agenda of whoever uses them. Evgeny Morozov observes that “we confuse the intended uses of technology with the actual uses,” and that by subscribing to a deterministic view of technology as a necessarily positive development for liberal democracy, we delude ourselves regarding the associated pitfalls that technology carries.iv

Instead, we should be vigilant, embracing technological advancement for society's benefit while not forgetting that it's ultimately we who shape our political community, whether intentionally or inadvertently. Digital media in and of themselves are non-moral tools, and will augment liberal democracy only to the extent that we use them as such. The real lesson to be drawn is that liberal democracy's enduring vitality in our country will depend on cultivating our collective capacity for critical thought, first by normalizing it as a central pillar of childhood education, and then by continually enriching it as a Canadian cultural norm through its conscious use in the media.

The success of Canadian democracy so far is laudable considering that liberal democracy isn’t just a goal to be achieved, but an ongoing process that demands empathy and communication if it's to be preserved and reinforced. Still today, liberal democracy is strained even in Western countries like Spain, the UK, and across the European Union, and its mere establishment looks a tall order throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Canada is doing a good job so far. Let's keep it that way by understanding and confronting frankly the challenges that our own political and technological advancement poses.

 

i Willcocks, Paul. 2015. “Who, or What, Is Behind Postmedia's Election Endorsements?” The Tyee, October 19.

ii Rifkin, Jeremy. 2014. The Zero Marginal Cost Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 2.

iii Hate Radio. Rwandan Stories. 2011. Accessed on November 30, 2015 at <http://www.rwandanstories.org/genocide/hate_radio.html>

iv Morozov, Evgeny. 2009. The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens? RSA Animate. Available at <https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/event-videos/2009/09/the-internet-in-society-empowering-or-censoring-citizens/>