We Can Save Democracy From Destructive Digital Threats.

Author:Greenspon, Edward
Position:Shoptalk /commentary
 
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A decade ago, governments and regulators allowed Wall Street to run amok in the name of innovation and freedom until millions of jobs were lost, families were forced from their homes and trust in the financial system was decimated.

Today, the same kinds of systemic risks--so-called because the damage ripples way beyond its point of origin--are convulsing the information markets that feed our democracy.

The growth of the internet has resulted in tremendous opportunities for previously marginalized groups to gain voice, but an absence of a public-interest governance regime or even a civic-minded business ethos has resulted in a flood of disinformation and hate propagated by geopolitical, ideological, partisan and commercial operatives.

The result is that the giant digital platforms that now constitute a new public sphere are far too often being used to weaponize information, with a goal of deepening social divisions, fostering unrest and ultimately undermining democratic institutions and social cohesion. As we've seen in other countries, the integrity of elections themselves are at risk.

What can be done?

Some people say we need to invest in digital literacy. This is true, as is the broader need to increase civic knowledge and sharpen critical thinking skills. Yet this isn't sufficient in itself. When Lake Erie was badly polluted a generation ago, signs were erected along the beaches warning swimmers to stay out of the water. But governments also passed laws and enforced regulations to get at the source of the pollution.

Others say these issues are not present in Canada. That would be a welcome kind of exceptionalism if remotely true. But misogynists, racists and other hate groups foment resentment online against female politicians and just about anyone else. Both the Quebec City mosque shooter and the suspect in the Toronto van attack were at least partially radicalized via the internet. That said, research into digital threats to our democracy is so thin in this country that we know almost nothing about who is purchasing our attention or exploiting our media ecosystem. There's certainly no basis for complacency about protecting Canada's 2019 federal election against attacks that would never be tolerated if they manifested themselves physically rather than digitally.

Here are some measures that merit serious consideration. The Elections Act needs to be reformed to bring complete transparency to digital advertising. Publishers and...

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