New Media and its Complicated Relationship to Democratic Governance and Political Polarization in Canada
Dr. Austin A. Mardon & Benjamin A. Turner
In the popular imagination, there are many who blame political polarization and the perceived degradation of democratic governance in Canada on the rapid rise of new media. While there is certainly no shortage of toxic content, the question of what impact new media has on governance and polarization is more nuanced. There are valid questions about what impacts different platforms have on society, but it is also the case that these platforms are individual entities with different structures and algorithms driving them. Analysis shows that new media does not degrade democratic governance, and in fact enhances it by increasing democratic participation. That increased participation and engagement by citizens also has the downstream affect of forming stronger opinions among citizens, leading to greater political polarization. More importantly, however, it is clear that the design of new media platforms determines these outcomes, so if we are able to design platforms that have negative outcomes, it is also possible to design platforms with positive outcomes for governance and political polarization.
The rapid expansion in the availability and prevalence of new media sources such as social media is a controversial topic in how it relates to democratic governance in Canada. These platforms have become massive and powerful, impacting the daily lives of Canadians in ways that were impossible to foresee just a few years ago; the impact they have on democracy and civil discourse in Canada are largely unknown, but researchers are beginning to explore the question. This paper will explore these questions and argue that new media enhances democratic governance in Canada; increased polarization of political discourse is contributed to unequally by new media platforms, but it is a direct consequence of the downstream effects of social media, not an immediate effect of new media more broadly.
New Media and Democratic Governance
One example of how new media has enhanced democratic governance in Canada has been explored by Clarke & Dubois (2020). Their work discusses the concept of the drive by some advocates to use digital technology to implement open government. There is some controversy over the precise definition of open government, but a simplistic definition is for governing institutions to be transparent and accountable to citizens, media, and other stakeholders. In this theory, the idea of open government is considered useful to democratic governance by giving stakeholders outside the government access to information about how leadership and the public service make decisions. Accountability is an essential part of democratic governance.
The specific case studied by Clarke & Dubois (2020) is related to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses belonging to the Canadian government making changes to Wikipedia entries, and how those changes are identified and reported by a Twitter bot (@gccaedits). The fear is that Wikipedia is an easy, accessible, and important source of information in Canada, but being open source also means entries can be modified anonymously at any time. Therefore, government employees have the capacity to make anonymous changes to public information, and that is potentially bad for transparency and therefore accountability. To respond to this threat, @gccaedits was created to identify when edits are made to Wikipedia by government IP addresses and to automatically report the changes, introducing a layer of accountability to the process (Clarke & Dubois, 2020).
In their research, Clarke & Dubois (2020) found it is generally the case that edits reported by the Twitter bot did not appear to be partisan in nature, but that typically when such edits were reported in traditional media the stories accused the changes of being partisan and political in nature. Here we can see a split between the motives of more traditional media, which often approaches reporting with an ideological agenda, and an example of new media reporting on government actions utilizing a simple program that shines a light on government actions without the opportunity to lend a narrative. The Twitter bot’s tweets, if accessed by Canadians, is presented as raw information, and requires the audience to judge for themselves whether an edit appears to be partisan in nature. When that same tweet is picked up by traditional media and amplified to a mass audience, it is assigned a narrative that serves the interests of the media organization. In this case, new media gives Canadians the tools to increase the transparency of their government, however political actors may choose to weave that information into their preferred narrative and that does not necessarily serve transparency and accountability. In other words, the potential exists for this form of new media to strengthen democratic governance in Canada, but it does not occur in a vacuum and not all Canadians have the time or interest to seek out the information for themselves, so much of the time increased transparency is filtered through other media sources that may not necessarily contribute to democratic governance.
The open government initiative discussed above is enabled by new media and executed by actors outside the government (Clarke & Dubois, 2020), however the Government of Canada has also engaged in efforts to establish a more open government approach to governance and encourage a more open dialogue with the public (Gintova, 2019). Efforts to date have included the Government of Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government in place from 2012-2014, Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0 from 2014-2016, and implemented its Third Biennial Plan to the Open Government Partnership from 2016-2018.
While the stated aim of the Government of Canada open government plans has been to increase dialogue between government and the public, Gintova (2019) found that while government agencies were routinely using new media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, there was rarely any evidence of 2-way communication on official government accounts. On the contrary, government agencies have a tendency to use those accounts as a medium to share press releases and other official information. While expanding the number of spaces where the government releases information does make the releases more accessible to the public, simply having access to more press releases does not necessarily increase government accountability.
One area where new media is used extensively by the federal government to communicate is on the subject of immigration, with many highly developed economies competing with one another to attract skilled labour through their immigration programs (Gintova, 2019). While social media has been extensively employed by the Government of Canada to share information about the process and attract skilled immigrants, it is noted that false information is also easily spread on social media and the governments own posts on those platforms often potentially misrepresent the immigration process (Gintova, 2019). This is just one example of how there is potential for greater government accountability and stronger democratic governance thanks to new media platforms, but where the outcome can be that facts are misrepresented or that government communication with the public is one-way and enforces the status quo. That said, just because the outcome does not match the potential for stronger democracy does not mean new media sources are degrading democratic governance in Canada.
There is another way that democratic governance may be strengthened in Canada by new media, and that is through strengthening plurality in Canadian society. With a greater breadth of perspectives, Canadians gain access to a greater variety of leadership, ideas, values, and perspectives. This diversity enables Canadian society to recognize and address the needs of citizens in a more holistic way, thus emboldening democratic governance. Alexander et al. (2009) offer an interesting case study in how internet access has allowed traditional Inuit language, culture, values, knowledge, and interests to be preserved among their own communities, and also transmitted to the rest of Canada with far greater efficiency than could be achieved through more traditional means.
Inuit culture has been threatened by the encroachment of southern media for decades, with radio and television broadcasts being largely a one-way street. Balikci (1989) described a striking difference between his initial contact with traditional Inuit communities in the 1950’s, and how remarkably colonized they appeared when he visited again in the 1970’s. The difference he noted was that by the 1970’s, most youth in the community spoke very little of their native language Inuktitut, their first language was firmly English and the youth danced and played to contemporary pop music that was available in abundance thanks to media broadcasts reaching them from the south. The specific subgroup of the Inuit that Balikci observed were the Netsilik people, but similar forced settlement was imposed on Inuit groups across the Canadian Arctic around the same time period (Balikci, 1989). This shift denotes a dramatic cultural shift that was imposed on the Inuit in the 1960’s. When Balikci visited the Netsilik in the 1950’s, they were still living their traditional nomadic lifestyle; the powers that be in Ottawa had not yet imposed any of the colonial lifestyle on the Inuit at that point. In the 1960’s as part of a Cold War defence project, the government built a network of early warning radar sites across the North, and at the same time forced the Inuit to adopt a static, settlement-based lifestyle, ending millennia of traditional nomadic practices (Balikci, 1989). Along with the colonial lifestyle came media and information broadcasts from the south, and the Inuit were almost exclusively consumers of media with very little content being produced in their communities. Inuit values and culture were being suppressed, and their voices were not accessible to citizens living in the south.
Aside from being invisible to the rest of Canada, Inuit language and culture were at risk of being lost in their own communities. New media has triggered a shift. Inuit culture can be broadcast internally and to the south, amplifying the voices of elders to share their unique knowledge and perspective, gaining agency and influence over governance in Canada (Alexander et al., 2009). The addition of Inuit voices to the popular discourse in Canada allows voters to have a better understanding and appreciation for Inuit concerns, which can inform policy and strengthen democratic governance. This outcome would not be possible without new media sources.
When discussing the concept of democratic governance, the concept of political polarization is a key factor in understanding the health of a society and its ability to maintain a respectful political discourse (Lee et al., 2018). If a nation is extremely politically polarized, it is more likely that respectful debate becomes a sour exercise, with political camps self-identifying and devolving into an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Ultimately a certain level of polarization may even create the potential for violence, leaving nations in an unstable, fractured state. When polarization reaches that level, democratic governance is threatened because opposing sides may become unwilling to accept democratic results if their side loses an election. As noted by Lee et al. (2018) and Yarchi et al. (2020), it is a widely held belief that new media, and social media in particular, are triggering greater political polarization in political communities across the world, including Canada. This section of the paper will review the degree to which new media is responsible for perceived increased polarization in Canada.
It is clear from the studies reviewed that social media does generally have some link to political polarization, however it is also important to recognize that polarization is not uniform amongst social media platforms. The platforms analyzed in the studies reviewed here are Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. It immediately becomes a complicated question of how do new media sources affect political polarization because all three of these platforms can be undoubtedly classified as new media, but they are vastly different in structure and function. Van Bavel et al. (2021) observe that political polarization is not an empirically verifiable direct cause of any of the reviewed platforms, but an interaction is evident as a downstream effect of social media. One of the points made is that algorithms of platforms play a key role in how information is created, curated and spread on social media (Van Bavel et al., 2021, Yarchi et al., 2020), so it follows that if social media can be designed that does contribute in some way to political polarization, it should also be possible to design platforms that minimize this effect.
Some limitations recognized by both Van Bavel et al. (2021) and Yarchi et al. (2020) is the limited availability of scholarly research outside the United States, and also the accessibility of data by researchers on some platforms. This makes it challenging for conclusions to be drawn on some platforms due to their structure. One of the common assumptions made in popular discourse is that social media users self-sort themselves into limited interest groups where their opinions are confirmed without challenge, sometimes referred to colloquially as users putting themselves in an echo chamber (Lee et al., 2018), but this effect appears to be overstated (Yarchi et al., 2020).
As far as social media causing a downstream effect of greater political polarization, recent studies including Lee et al. (2018), Yarchi et al. (2020), and Van Bavel et al. (2021) all found that the effect social media has on users in political discussions is greater engagement with their localized political process, and over time greater engagement also often led to greater political polarization. Here we see an interesting contradiction where political polarization is a threat to democratic governance, but it is also a direct consequence of democratic participation by the public. For democratic governance to function properly, citizens need to be engaged in the process, so if a broad statement can be made it would be that new media encourages political participation thus strengthening democratic governance, but may also contribute to greater political polarization, thus undoing some of the net benefit to democratic society.
Contrary to the assumption that social media is responsible for political polarization, Yarchi et al. (2020) found the effect of social media to be highly contextual, and on WhatsApp in some cases communities actually became less polarized over time. In those cases interactions started out as homophilic and hostile towards outsiders but became forums where greater understanding of outsiders was ultimately achieved. This was not the case all of the time, but it was statistically relevant and nicely illustrates the fact that the context of a discussion on social media is as important as many other factors in determining the outcome on political polarization.
While it is often assumed that new media sources, most notably social media, worsen conditions for democratic governance in Canada, there are clear opportunities presented by new media for greater transparency in government and representation for traditionally oppressed communities such as the Inuit. While efforts made by the federal government to appear more accessible and transparent to Canadians have proven largely window dressing only, one of the important strengths of new media sources is that it empowers citizens to realize the potential for greater democratic governance without necessarily having the active participation of government.
It is also the case that many people blame worsening political polarization on new media sources, and while new media is not entirely blameless in this phenomenon it is also far more complicated than to simply say all social media always worsens political polarization. In some cases polarization is actually decreased on social media platforms, and the broad trend of greater polarization may actually be the direct result of greater political engagement by citizens which may be a two steps forward and one step back type scenario for democratic governance. It is also critical to recognize that no two social media platforms share the same structure or algorithms, and those factors are also essential in the effect the platform has on the political disposition of users.
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