In a little more than six months, Canadians go to the polls to exercise their right to vote for an MP to represent them. In the normal course of events, this singular act of citizenship is held up as the key measure for health in our democracy, a sign of commitment to democratic values. Job done, at least until the next election. It’s time to push back hard against this simple narrative and accept that these aren’t normal times.
Increasingly, democracies are coming under threat from those who seek to sow dissension, chaos and polarization for political gain. Propaganda is nothing new, but the tools of misinformation and deception are more accessible than ever through online platforms.
As the federal government develops strategies to address potential threats to our elections, it’s useful to ask what can be done to fight fake news. In doing so, we also need to ask ourselves if online information is a cause or a symptom.
We increasingly suspect that an important way for fighting misinformation is to build a stronger sense of shared belonging or social connectedness. Platforms such as Google, Facebook and YouTube have fragmented the media landscape. This fragmentation also makes it easy for individuals to “silo” themselves comfortably into like-minded groups. These “echo chambers” constantly confirm and reinforce opinions, while minimizing exposure to other or opposing views. When disagreements turn to uncivil and polarized discourse, often aided by online misinformation, they feed social division and scapegoating that places enormous pressure on the common bonds and democratic values Canadians are proud to share and support.
Why should we care? Online misinformation has serious implications for Canadian democracy, because it feeds mistrust among individuals, and between individuals and the institutions we depend upon. Evidence from a recent poll on Metro Vancouver residents’ views on democracy commissioned by the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue revealed that mistrust in key democratic institutions (e.g. elections, Parliament, the media) is associated with a greater openness to anti-government populism. It also leads to a questioning of core democratic values, such as free speech, freedom of the press and gender equality. This adds fuel to the engine of those who would use online disinformation to skew Canadians’ ability to play an effective role in democratic processes.
As we consider the reality of further societal disruptions and polarization facilitated by social media and fake news, it’s therefore critical to ask: What is the path forward for those who want to stand up for democracy and reinforce a collective Canadian consciousness? How can Canadians fight misinformation?
The idea of building resilience through social connectedness finds some support in the same Metro survey. It found that those who had a stronger sense of belonging to their neighbourhood were more committed to democracy as a system of government, had much higher levels of trust in democratic institutions and were more likely to have participated in a wide range of democratic activities. They also had much greater confidence in their ability to influence decisions, placed greater value on voting in elections and were more likely to view democratic participation as a responsibility. In other words, it’s possible that building connections might also build mutual trust and understanding. If we increase our common source of identity and belonging, it’s not too big a leap to think we may also strengthen our commitment to finding shared solutions to the challenges we face.
These may not be normal times for our democracy, but the scourge of online misinformation must not be normalized; yet we will surely fail if we believe the fix to be purely one of technology. Bold action is urgently needed to activate and support Canadians as champions of our democracy who will stand up to combat polarization and defend democratic values. Some solutions can be as simple as who we invite to dinner and what we share with our friends online. Others will require deeper cultural shifts and changes within our institutions. Civic education must move beyond filling students’ heads with information and instead provide a taste of what it feels like to make a difference in their communities. Elected officials must increasingly find ways to demonstrate that they’re listening to Canadians between elections and acting upon what they hear.
The truth is that our knowledge about what works for democratic engagement is incomplete, and will be different based on population and context. The Centre for Dialogue has recently launched our Strengthening Canadian Democracy initiative to help connect the dots. Working with local and national partners, we are seeking out examples of amazing programming in civic education, community building and public participation that lead to long-term change in citizens’ democratic commitment and ongoing participation.
Canadians shouldn’t stand idly by as the few who seek to promote discord slowly chip away at the bedrock of our democracy. Instead, we must build bonds of mutual trust and common understanding. The pathway forward will include the ballot box but will be far richer and deeper than the mere act of voting. This path will take us to our kitchen tables. It will lead past our schools and our libraries. It will impact the way we speak to each other — and most certainly the way that we listen.
Daniel Savas is a visiting professor in Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy. Robin Prest is program director at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2019 Community Summit: Confronting the Disinformation Age, running April 10-18.
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