As Canada prepares to examine another piece of legislation to control “online harms”, will the importance of diverse views be debated by parliamentarians?
A year ago, following the attack on the US Capitol by Trump loyalists, I wrote “Escaping the echo chamber”, expressing a concern that algorithmic news feeds can be depriving too many people of opposing viewpoints. As a result, readers are often presented with a limited range of perspectives, which are frequently left unchallenged, enabling single sided (and perhaps, false) narratives to be amplified within a social network community. This is not just a US phenomenon; we see that in the so-called Truckers Convoy on Parliament Hill, and frankly, we also see it among many responding to the protest.
There are less confrontational examples as well.
On Twitter last week, I noticed a small group of people who apparently couldn’t get past the Bell branding associated with Bell Let’s Talk Day. It was one thing for them to be unwilling to attach a #BellLetsTalk hashtag on their tweets. They went out of their way to criticize the initiative, criticize Bell, or use the occasion to complain about incumbent wireless gross margins in general. In one case, we were told “For the past few years, there has been a steady rise in the backlash to Bell’s annual “talk” day, but this is the first year where I’m seeing a clear gap: Universal opposition and criticism from everybody except institutional/gov accounts and public personalities.”
Of course, this statement doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
A “universal opposition” would be mathematically inconsistent with the year-over-year growth measured in interactions every year since the event began, including 2022 setting records once again. I read “Universal opposition and criticism from everybody” like a Yogi Berra-ism: “Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore because it’s too crowded.” Besides filing that criticism as one that didn’t age well, I suggested that the tweet demonstrates that the author may not be exposed to enough diverse viewpoints.
A few years ago, I wrote “Is social media better at breaking than making?”, that included some key points distilled from an interview with an activist credited with helping trigger the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, leading to the fall of the Mubarek government. Among other points, he observed:
We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else…online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs… It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars… Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet… today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations… It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.
I have mentioned before that I subscribe to the Toronto Star despite my frequent disagreement with its editorial stance. I make a point of reading the opinion pages and columnists precisely because I disagree with so many of them. I read a number of other papers online with a wide range of political leanings.
As I wrote last year, “When reading, we need to be able to distinguish between language that is insightful and words that are inciteful. Which words lead to constructive engagement and which words are those that are destructive? What facts are being omitted because they inconveniently don’t fit the narrative being set forward? Which authors are consistently reliable and which ones seem to prefer sensationalism over substance?”
That requires digital literacy training. Remarkably, too many appear to be lacking this basic understanding of a need to diversify our sources of information and cast a wider social net.
Parliament will be debating legislation that could limit speech that offends the sensibilities of some people. That is worrisome to me. In a 2019 post (“Regulating speech”) I commented on the need to be able to distinguish between content that is merely offensive, without being illegal. Earlier that year (in “Dealing with illegal content”), I wrote that “we need to consider the very high bar that has rightly been set in defining what forms of speech are illegal, as contrasted with speech that someone merely deems to be offensive.”
Just over 15 years ago, I was involved with a case involving an internet-based cross-border death threat. Ultimately, the case was resolved by a Virginia court that decided there were bounds on free speech, even by US standards.
I tend to subscribe to the view expressed in the film The American President: “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
As I have asked before, how do we ensure that actions to deal with online harms are consistent with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”?
How do we protect our right to spirited speech, expressing diverse viewpoints, as we continue to promote healthy debate on issues, even when those views might offend the sensitive sensibilities of some?