My wife and I spent some time in Ottawa last week testifying before the Human Rights Committee concerning the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. I noted a number of changes in Parliament since my sojourn there as a Member of Parliament ended six years ago, chief of which was the collective sense of tentativeness among the elected officials. That’s because the world has suddenly become far more complex, and at times threatening. Politicians are getting their information from all sides, both pro and con, and in doses that would challenge anyone.
That’s mostly opposite to the challenges citizens are facing regarding how they get their information. According to a recent Abacus Data survey, Canadians are becoming increasingly addicted to social media as their preferred source for political news – doubling in only the last two years. In a revealing statistic, the research paper discovered that 17% of respondents didn’t have cable or satellite television at home, although they did have an average of 5.8 devices connected to the Internet. Only 1% got their news from print newspapers.
So, like their politicians, citizens are getting news from everywhere around them. But there is one key distinction: Canadians are increasingly shaping what they get to suit their taste. This reality is threatening to our cohesion as citizens. The Abacus study found that Twitter users were twice as likely to get into a squabble as other social media consumers. Squabbles aren’t a bad thing and essential to debate, must unless common ground is discovered the repeated fracturing of society continues unabated. As the report itself reported regarding Facebook users:
“Canada’s most active Facebook users tend to feast on a diet of news and information that is catered specifically to their interests, values, and ideologies. The more active Canadians are on Facebook, the more limited their world view.”
Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, predicted what all this would mean: “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.” It used to be that we were informed and shaped by what we got from traditional news services. Today it’s the other way around, as the news industry molds itself more exclusively around what we are interested in. The news industry is changing us in the similar fashion to how we are changing the industry.
Internet pioneer Esther Dyson predicted something like this would happen, when she wrote, “The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power. It sucks power out of the centre, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over the people while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives.” Okay, we get that. And we get that the news industry is scattering to the periphery as well. But what if one of the casualties of that phenomenon is that the centre can no longer hold? This becomes the greatest challenge to modern politics, and judging from what I witnessed in Ottawa last week few have adequate answers to the dilemma. What if we need to come together to confront our greatest challenges but discover we lack the capacity to do so? Politicians, in a rampant age of populism, worry about this every day and how they might manage it.
Democracy has had a great run, especially in the years since the Second World War. And yet while it has won almost all of its battles, winning the war has always seemed just out of reach. That war, of course, was to create a better, more equitable and peaceful world, a place where our differences were never powerful enough to overcome our common ground. Ultimately the greatest casualty of democracy isn’t truth or freedom, but the gradual erosion of that very common ground that held us together, despite our distinctions. We didn’t make it inclusive enough and weren’t duly diligent in resourcing it. And now when we need it, we discover it’s fractured.
A connected world can’t be built merely on our differences. We require a new kind of democracy, a new narrative, a new world of inclusiveness. That will become increasingly difficult to achieve unless we come together to build it and our politicians make themselves relevant again by building the social and economic structures to make that possible. It is time for all of us, our politicians included, to come together to write a new history by shaping it rather than fearing it.
Photo credit: Martin Nitalla