August 13, 2020

“Our political views are being hardened by the structure of our social media.” That’s according to Bessma Momani, a political science professor who spoke on a panel on populism and social media with two University of Waterloo colleagues at the Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex Monday, March 2.

Populism is politics directed against a perceived elite. It can embody right- or left-wing sentiments.

“In my view it’s more the style of politics,” history professor Daniel Gorman said in a phone interview. “It’s the tactics that populists use, rather than the policies or issues or goals per se.”

Populists address perceived threats to identity, which isn’t usually part of Canadian politics, Gorman said. They use trademark tactics. “So it’s mass rallies, speaking directly quote-unquote to the people.”

Gorman would label U.S. President Donald Trump and the U.K. Brexit movement as populist, but named Tommy Douglas, the first leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, a populist for how he brought Canada’s first universal public healthcare system to Saskatchewan.

Yet the populism discussed at the March 2 panel, titled “Beyond the Headlines: Who’s Defending Democracy?” is the right-wing, anti-immigration kind successful in the United States and Britain and unsuccessful in Canada (where the new People’s Party of Canada, which favoured more restricted immigration, did not win a seat in the 2019 federal election).

Gorman noted by phone, “We haven’t seen the same upsurge of sort of populist anger and resentment and so forth (in Canada) as either to the south, in the United States, or in Britain,” but said, “that can shift.”

Gorman’s opening remarks explored the Brexit phenomenon. Before him, political science professor Emmett Macfarlane spoke on the difficulty of curbing legal hateful speech. Momani discussed the problematic nature of contemporary populism as a whole. She said it blames elites, distrusts experts and alienates immigrants as an unwanted “other.” Some desire a strongman leader, while social media, sometimes under foreign influence, polarizes the population.

“When we come to the point of exercising democracy … we feel so hard done by when we don’t get our way,” she said of the way social media affects voters.

Macfarlane said in a phone interview, “People now can basically curate their own sources of information.” But in the internet’s unvetted environment, “You get a situation where it’s just people sharing things online that may or may not be credible.”

However, research by the Digital Democracy Project prior to the 2019 federal election found Canadians trusted political news from mainstream outlets much more than that from social media, as well as relative homogeneity in Canadians’ choice of traditional outlets.

Social media use led to greater misinformation, as did partisanship, but, puzzlingly, so did traditional media use, though less than did social media. Yet the authors noted, “the overall level of misinformation appears to be quite low in the Canadian public.”

While polarization in the emotional sense — negative feelings for those politically opposed — was present just before the election campaign, the authors stated, “the usual narrative of social media-based echo chambers driving real-world polarization is not supported by our survey and online data. Yes, some small subset of Twitter users tend to create online echo chambers, but our survey findings suggest that the offline impact is very limited.

“Ultimately,”  the authors wrote, “the biggest driver of polarization seems to be ideology and partisanship themselves.” (It’s important to note the study could only measure correlation, not causation.)

Left-right polarization in Canada is real. Gorman hypothesized, though, that the very vastness of Canada may militate against a prickly populism after that of the United States and Britain.

Macfarlane said the failure of the People’s Party of Canada, and more so his interactions with students, gave him hope for the future: students, he said by phone, “who cut across the entire ideological spectrum. So my more conservative students and my more progressive students, they equally give me faith because they are all, or I should say most of them are, really good, smart, compassionate people.” 

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