Anti-Social Media — Part I

In the last few years, we have heard a constant discussion about the increasing polarization of politics. I hear this concern from time to time in the coffee shops of Durham and can see why people have that view. Politics seems to be more personal and divisive than it was in the past. While some voices have quite rightly reminded us that this is an exaggerated view and that our political past is full of bad chapters, my time in politics has led me to believe that the language and level of dialogue about politics and policy issues is in decline and needs to be improved.

Read: Canada’s Angry, Divisive Politics Are as Old as Canada Itself

So, what are the causes of this decline in political discourse? Some people point to the election of President Trump in the United States as the cause, but I don’t agree. I can assure you that the problems pre-date the recent US election and are not attributable to any one politician or political side. In the run-up to the 2015 Canadian election my party leader was demonized so much by some groups that observers coined the term “Harper Derangement Syndrome” to describe the over-the-top vitriol about Stephen Harper. I see similarly unfair and wild language on social media today branding Justin Trudeau a “traitor” for some of his actions. These claims are ridiculous and set back discussion of the issues, and I have said that to people who make these claims. While I disagree strongly with Trudeau on many things, I have a respectful rapport with him (when I am not heckling) and I don’t appreciate any over-the-top rhetoric about any Prime Minister or political figure.

Read: The Increasing Pile of Bizarre Examples of Harper Derangement Syndrome

Democracy as both a word and system of government is rooted in “the people”, so we are ultimately responsible for our own political rhetoric whether in person or online, but I place much of the blame for the general decline in discourse in recent years on social media. This issue is important in an election year, so this is the first of three columns on what I consider to be the problems with social media and how we — the people — can recognize these problems and do our part to halt the decline.

The daily newspaper and print journalism has been the cornerstone of the free press in western democracies for centuries. This is where political discourse started and where views were formed. The journalism was professional, fact-checked, edited and normally included a mixture of news reporting and editorial commentary. There were papers and columnists on the left and right of the political spectrum, but you would generally see the factual news and a range of views between the front and back pages. Today, the newspaper and traditional media is on the precipice. The digital economy blew up the old media business model with the shift of advertising dollars to online sources and the shift of consumers to free online content. All major newspapers in Canada have experienced a 50% or greater decline in paid subscriptions in the last decade and what is replacing them is now shaping views and discourse about them.

Read: Democracy and the Decline of Newspapers

Today, most people get their news from social media. A stunning report from the Pew Research Centre last year summed up the problem with this headline: “Most Americans continue to get news on social media, even though many have concerns about its accuracy”. The study confirmed that two-thirds of Americans reported getting their news from their social media newsfeeds despite the fact they knew it was potentially inaccurate. I suspect that the percentages would not be too different in Canada.

Read: News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018

The digital revolution has provided us with instantaneous 24-hour news and commentary in the palm of our hand. While this is tremendous and allows more people to access news and lend their voices to the political conversation, it is also a major departure from the past. Social media platforms are not professional news organizations and the design of their platforms is changing the way we consume news and is limiting our ability to understand and respect other points of view on political issues.

Social media platforms create an echo chamber effect by their design with people viewing repetitive content that reinforces their view without offering any contrary views. The people you follow on Twitter, Instagram or through the ubiquitous Facebook platform are your friends or people you like or admire. These people will normally share your views, so having more and more people reinforcing your view creates a negative network effect where people begin to value only their own view. People are not reading newspapers, but are checking their smartphones 52 times per day and seeing only their view reinforced time and time again. With this in mind, is it any wonder we look at people with views different from our own as outliers or “deranged”?

My next column will explore the trouble with chasing “Likes”.

Read: Smartphones Rising: The Momentum Continues