National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

In 2016, some 18.2 million Canadians used Facebook, and until the platform’s seismic struggles in the past two weeks that number was expected to grow to 20 million.  It has a 75% reach among Canadian internet users and has twice as high a user rate than Twitter.  More than half of Facebook users are women and 84% of young Canadians use it on a weekly basis.

These numbers are staggering, making up half of all Canadians, and whether we like or not, contain serious implications for our democracy, for good or ill.

Lately the “ill” part has been getting all the attention, justifiably so.  With half the country on Facebook the temptation for political manipulation is extreme and, as with south of the border, could cast our campaigns under a shadow.   One company, Cambridge Analytica, took the Facebook data from millions of users in America and used it all to twist democracy to devious ends.  Worst of all, it might not have been illegal.  But it wasn’t just shady, either; tainted political practices were used in this case to undermine an entire public’s trust in the political system.

It wasn’t all that long ago that robocalls were accused of troubling a Canadian federal election (elections have always been of tempting interest to the politically obsessed), but nothing has quite prepared us for this.  We might well discover that political operatives have used Facebook data in recent years in a fashion that Elections Canada is surely trying to catch up with and which voters will find dispiriting.  We just done’t know; the sheer cope of the data is truly that vast.

Somehow the thought of 1984’s Big Brother or Brave New World don’t seem like something we just learned in class anymore.  Many commentators claim that such dystopian realities, emboldened by the use of science and data, are growing nearer in light of the Facebook scandal.  When Francis Bacon wrote in the 16th century scientia potentia est (knowledge is power), he could hardly have imagined that trillions of bits of digital data would eventually transcend the traditional concept of information, placing the welfare of millions at risk.

Canadian politics – any politics – is supposed to be about how we agree to make and reform the methods by which we live together and how we choose to resolve our conflicts.  But in a land as vast as ours, what if we don’t even know what is being done to us, how our private leanings are being data mined, or how unwittingly we become part of some political party’s design?  Our democracy should be far more precious than to endanger it on things we can’t even fathom, but thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and his digital empire of over 2.1 billion users worldwide every month – larger than the scope of Christianity, one researcher claims – our very future is threatened by forces that have the ability to shape civilization without even knowing it.  Nothing like this has challenged democracy in its relatively short run – ever.

And we as citizens got into it because it was free.  True it helped us keep in touch, promote a cause, learn, share images, even study analytics, but all these advantages together can’t hope to match the billions of dollars Facebook made from our information.  Never has something free to use cost us so much, perhaps even our identity.

If it’s true that, thanks to social media, we are smarter and more aware than we have ever been, then how has it come to be that climate change remains significantly unaddressed in the West, that our wages are stagnant, that true gender equality has not been attained, or that the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider each day?  It is supposed to be our politics, the usefulness of democracy, our ability to remain focused on our greatest challenges, that help us address such dangers.  But what if democracy itself is undermined by something we joined largely because it didn’t cost us anything?  None of these ominous challenges ahead will come cheap and can only be overcome by sacrifice and sustainability, not by some kind of digital dystopia.  We have to do a better job of coming together to fight off such threats.

To turn a blind eye to politics has always been a temptation for Canadians, but if our political life together can be easily manipulated without our knowledge, then we will have lost our way in the middle of all that data and our democracy will never recover from our lack of attention to our national wellbeing.  We may choose to remain on Facebook, but the relationship will never be the same.  And that’s for the better.

Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario.  He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario.  He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 29 years.  He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“.   Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.
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