October 19 will complete, we are told, Canada’s first truly digital federal election.
“For the first time, one in every three voters will rely almost exclusively on digital sources for their election information and news — they have no cable or satellite, watch less than two hours of TV per week, or simply prefer online sources only,” Leslie Church, wrote recently in the National Post.
“With such a large and growing number of voters relying on the Internet for their election-related information, the web has become a vital tool for all Canadians who value access to information as a means of supporting an engaged, informed electorate,” Church added.
As head of communications and public affairs for Google Canada, Church’s corporate interest may be obvious, but it doesn’t negate the truth of what is being said. Even if it were shown to contain some hyperbole as far as the 2015 election is concerned, the only thing askew would be the timing.
A CNN Study released this week showed that among 13-year-olds in the U.S., the heaviest users check their social media feeds up to 100 times a day.
Obviously, at that age, the vast majority are checking their status updates for, well, their pecking order status among their adolescent peers, not for the electoral implications of what the undersecretary said to the subcommittee.
But give them give five years—a single election cycle—until they are 18 and beginning to engage with the wider world, and what will we have? We will have a generation whose mainstream media will be what we now refer to as social media. Their political outlooks will be formed by, and decisions based on, inexhaustible media feeds checked up to 100 times a day.
Whether, as Google’s Leslie Church says, the power of those feeds is fully realized now or in five years is really irrelevant. The political tectonic shift is unstoppable, and its ultimate effects incalculable.
The politics of idea, reflection, and evaluation gave way two generations ago to the politics of image, bombardment, and bite. The politics by algorithm will change the way we do democracy by an order of magnitude.
Arguing over whether such change is a good thing or a bad thing is a feckless thing, and I say that as an essential conservative who is uncomfortable changing a light bulb until enough time has passed for me to be entirely convinced it has burned out. Sooner or later, as the great Sam Cooke song told us, the change is gonna come. Incapacity to fend off the revolution does not mean, however, that we cannot lay down some ground rules about what it will look like and what its conduct will be.
For starters, if this is truly the first digital federal election, I truly hope it is also the last truly digital election in which candidates are forced out of local election races for words posted on Facebook or other social media five, six, two or seven years ago.
There has been a plague of such frog marching off the campaign trail in this election. Almost all of them have been for comments posted in social media before those responsible ever even had any thought of running for office. The vast majority involved trivialities. In some cases, the indignity done to the resigning candidate was not merely an embarrassment but also an injustice.
The sheer number of jettisoned candidates shows the abysmal cowardice on the part of parties in abandoning their own loyalists. Yet there’s something even worse than cowardice at work. It is antithetical to the democratic spirit, which holds that what is thought one day can be thought through differently over time. For all their faults, social media such as Facebook are forums for thinking - or in some cases not thinking - out loud and being tested/corrected by others. Except for explicit party-sponsored content, much of what appears on social media is usually some form of test run of an idea, not a manifesto branded into someone's being forever and ever amen. It can always be nuanced, amended, or disavowed. That is as it should be in democratic debate. Five-minute fundamentalism is the antithesis of democratic engagement.
“Since a Google search without content makes for a poor user experience…preserving a robust independent press is crucial for providing the public with reliable trusted information,” Leslie Church concludes in the National Post.
True that, as they say. But a robust media and a vital democracy are both as much about context as content. Let this, then, be the last time Google and other search engines are used merely to titillate us with the silly things various candidates have said, and to punish those caught in the web. Ultimately, the political game of he said/she said is puerile, sterile and boring. It offends any self-respecting democracy, analog, digital, or otherwise.