Dear Valpy: social media isn't killing democracy, it's making it stronger

So I’m really worried I’m becoming the one man rant show about the Globe, but as long as their columnists keep writing stuff that completely misunderstand the intersection between technology and politics, I feel bound to say something.

First it was Martin Lawrence, who was worried about the future of the country since his profile of young people was (as my friend put it) limited to “an unthinking, entitled drain on the country I call home and pillage without contribution…”

Now Michael Valpy is worried. He’s actually worried about a lot of things (which don’t all seem to hang together, but the part that has him most worried is that Canadians are becoming segmented into smaller groups and that this threatens the fabric of our democracy and country.

The premise goes something like this: the decline of main stream media and the rise of social media means Canadians are suffering from a social cohesion deficit. Increasingly we will have less in common with one another and engage in narrower and smaller conversations. As a result, there will no longer be a “political agenda” we all agree we should be talking about. It is all summed with a quote from a Carleton University Professor:

“The thing about newspapers is that you always find things you didn’t know you were looking for. You come across views that you don’t agree with or don’t like,” says Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University’s school of journalism. “When you’re searching for things on the Internet, I think it’s much less likely that you’re searching for things that challenge you. You’re much more likely to be searching for positive reinforcement.”

and it goes on…

“Society is always better when someone is trying to undermine your views. And particularly, social cohesion is better, because being challenged forces you to think through why you believe what you believe. It’s the stimulus for debate and discussion and a recognition of multiple others.”

What’s so frustrating is that Waddell and Valpy arrive to the debate both 3 years late and with the wrong conclusion. As Steven B Johnson, who wrote one of many fantastic pieces on “serendipity,” might ask: “Does Michael Valpy even use the internet?” But of course a main stream media columnist and a professor who trains them would naturally see a diminishing role for main stream media as a threat to democracy and the very fabric of the country. This argument has been tried, and frankly, it doesn’t have legs. Democracy and Canada will survive the decline of mainstream media – just as it survived before it existed.

Indeed, the decline of mainstream media may actually be healthy for our democracy. Here are two thoughts for Valpy to stew on:

First, comes from Missing the Link, a piece Taylor and I wrote ages ago which keeps proving to be handy:

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

This strikes at the core of how Valpy and I disagree. To be harsh, but I believe fair, he is essentially arguing that we may be better off not only if we are dumber, but if we are collectively so. The country is better, stabler and safer if we all talk about the same thing (which really means… what does Toronto/Ottawa/Ontario insert favourite centralist scape goat here, want). Hogwash I say! Diversity is what makes Canada great, and it is, paradoxically, the thing that binds us. Certainly for my tribe the value of Canada is that you can come here and can be what you want. There is a common value set, but it is minimalist. The central value – now protected by the charter – is that you can be who you want to be. And that is something many of us cherish. Indeed, don’t underestimate the fact that that is pretty strong glue, especially in a world where there are many countries in which such a right does not exist.

Second, I think there is compelling case to be made that it is main stream media that is killing democracy. Virtually every political analyst agrees that ever since Trudeau the power of the Prime Minister’s office has been steadily increasing, more recently to a degree that arguably threatens the role and function of parliament. Do Committees matter any more? Not really. Oh, and name a regional MP who has real weight – someone on par to John Crosbie in his hey day. Pretty hard. What about Ministers? There authority (and accountability) is not even a slice of what it used to. And cabinet? Even it toes the line of the mighty all powerful PM.

What parallels this rise in the PMs absolute power? The increased used of modern technologies. TV and polls. With TVs the Prime Minister can speak directly to Canadians everywhere – without having to be mediated by pesky local MPs or representatives. And with polls, the prime minister doesn’t even need local MPs to give him or her the “sense on the ground.”  But imagine a world where the two very things that Valpy fears are in decline – polling and mainstream media – actually do disappear? With a citizenry fractured along hundreds of conversations there are all sorts of information niches for MPs to fill and play important roles within. More importantly, without effective polling MPs local knowledge and local community connections (enhanced by social media) suddenly becomes relevant again.

If anything polling and mainstream media (especially TV) were killing our democracy. Social media may be the reason we get it back.

14 thoughts on “Dear Valpy: social media isn't killing democracy, it's making it stronger

  1. writelife

    I had to comment but it was long-winded so I made a blog post of it. I both agree and disagree with you (and Valpy, for that matter). My post is: Who are we not hearing from?To save time and cut to the chase: Valpy's argument is silly if for no other reason than that it stubbornly wants to go against change. More to the point, however, though I'm a great social media enthusiast I do not buy into the democracy argument, at least not fully, because of all the people excluded from it. Like hockey, any kid can play — if they can afford it.

  2. Craig Sellars

    Thoughtful post, thank you.On the rise of PM power, check out Donald J Lavoie's book:Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United KingdomHave a delightful day

  3. sdubord

    There's a major flaw in Valpy's assumptions on mainstream media – which is mainstream media isn't segmented.To say mainstream media challenges viewers with opposing views is ridiculous. While not quite as polarized here in Canada, one just has to look at the media outlets in the US and see the lack of such challenge. Will a hardline Republican really confront anything that challenges his views while watching Fox News?Mainstream media was once the new version of the Agora, where ideas were discussed and debated. That era is long gone. In its final throes, what we see as a bunch of polarized monologues patting everyone on the back on how smart they are to think alike, or on the off chance there's actual differing views, a screaming match to see who can get in the one soundbite that will stick. Is it really a wonder why we are moving on to more participatory mediums?With mainstream media no longer even hinting at objectivity, I dare say that democracy is being SAVED by the internet.

  4. Briana_T

    I found both Valpy's column and your response via Bill (comment #1). I had some similar gripes. My post is Be Not Deterred by the Wall of Plaid – taking the civic engagement argument a little further. Here's the bit from my post that I think is relevant here: “I believe, like Valpy, that a shared well of knowledge held in common is essential to empowering citizens to become more deeply integrated in their communities, and aware of their power to shape the social culture in which we live. Unlike Valpy, I don’t think this is a role the mass media plays well.Mass media certainly is effective at reaching a large number of people. But the message is limited by the constraints of the medium. Heavy overhead costs mean publishers are more beholden to advertisers. Advertisers also require eyeballs – which is why a mass audience is targeted. A mass audience brings its own limitations in depth of coverage and attention to niche issues. And, ultimately what unites strangers into citizens isn’t reading coverage of crime, council meetings, rewritten press releases and staged news events. It’s seeing their own passions and concerns woven into a shared narrative about the life of a place. The mass media definitely has a role to play here, but this is a story that is too large to fit into a single 500-word feature, or even a lengthier tryptych of 1000-word articles. This is a story best shared online.When it comes to the establishment of a shared resource of information held in common, it’s hard to beat the Web. Its distributed nature allows for many smaller publishers, each as niche or as mass as they want to be. This is what scares Valpy and many other journalists – that many competing voices will lead to a plurality of disconnected narratives about our country and our role as citizens. Yet the second great quality of the Internet is often overlooked in this argument: that these distributed sources are also highly interconnected. There is no greater fount of serendipity than the Web. Valpy argues the opposite in his Globe & Mail piece, but I find it hard to see how anyone can take seriously the argument that reading a single newspaper will expose you to a greater range of points of view than the smorgasbord of web publications and socially driven link-sharing in the online news reader’s diet.”

  5. Jacques Drolet

    Fears of non-streamlined discussions is and will continue to be expressed for years to come. And yes, access or willingness to access the internet with the goal of being an informed citizen still has to grow (mostly by a change in the age pyramid:-)), but , yet, I know that interested parties go and get their info at the “connected” computers of their local library. Therefore, I dare say that, although there is a way to and to improve our way to absorb all this information, and come up with a personal input, we are way beyond the democratic awareness and involvement of the preceding generation. The point I want to make here is that the best way to address a Professor feears (Valpy in this case), is to address his fear as oppose to enter in counter-arguments: Inititate a one-to-one exchange and you will be there. The value is that a professor build hundreds of minds. The cost is, well, courage. But again email does help doesn't it?

  6. KareAnderson

    Have you asked for a guest editorial in The Globe – both to outline your responses and to tell citizens of things they can do to help their towns to use more social media

  7. KareAnderson

    Have you asked for a guest editorial in The Globe – both to outline your responses and to tell citizens of things they can do to help their towns to use more social media

  8. KareAnderson

    Have you asked for a guest editorial in The Globe – both to outline your responses and to tell citizens of things they can do to help their towns to use more social media

  9. Pingback: The Valpy Social Media debate |

  10. Pingback: Social Media and the City at MasterMaq's Blog

  11. Pingback: Links on Social Media & Politics: Notes from “We Want Your Thoughts #4″ |

  12. Pingback: Open Data Movement is a Joke? |

Comments are closed.