“Information is the lifeblood of democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or corrupt governance can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy”Stephen Harper as quoted in Anne-Marie Gingras,
“Access to Information: An Asset for Democracy or Ammunition for Political Conflict, or Both?”
Citizens’ ability to make informed decisions is a basic pillar of democracy. Citizens depend on the various outlets of media to access relevant information, giving media a central and critical role in a functioning political system. To this end, the “central role [of media] in the political process [has been to] relay and interpret objective happenings in the political sphere and facilitate subjective perceptions of them in the wider public sphere.”
The Role of Media in Politics
In addition to providing information to the public, the media influences politics in at least three different (but intersecting) ways:
Agenda setting. Setting a political agenda is one of the most important tasks of a government and how that political agenda is presented by media outlets may have important consequences for both the success and the perception of a government (or political party, or candidate, etc.). What a media chooses to present to the public can influence what issues are important to voters (and what politicians will want to campaign on). At the same time, what issues are prioritized by political parties will likely influence what media want to cover.
Framing. If agenda-setting is addresses what issues media cover, framing addresses how those issues are covered. Framing is “a journalistic or elite viewpoint or angle, which highlights one aspect of a political issue over another“. How media present an issue will influence how the issue will be interpreted by viewers/listeners/readers and may “spin” the message in a particular way that can benefit or harm the political party, candidate, or government, etc.
Priming. In addition to agenda-setting and framing, media may affect politics by priming the public to think about certain issues. Priming occurs when the media focuses on a certain issue in a certain way to improve the perception of a particular candidate, party, or party leader. This is a means to garner support from the population by “seek[ing] to emphasize considerations that will help” the party, leader, or candidate in question.
Social Media in Canadian Politics
Traditional media used for political communications includes television and radio, as well as print advertisements. More recently, however, discussions of the free press and political communications have expanded to include the rapid growth of social media platforms and their use in political campaigning, including platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok. The rapid expansion of social media in elections posed an important contradiction: on one hand, citizen and candidate-led social media can largely cultivate higher levels of political engagement and reach people that traditional media may not, and younger people in particular. On the other hand, the expansion of available information enabled by social media may also include misinformation, which can erode public understanding of key issues in the election and trust in the electoral process.
Social media has also become a critical source of political news. Since roughly half of Canadians receive their news from social media, these platforms clearly have a significant impact on the information people receive and are able to access. In Canada, as elsewhere, Twitter has been used by politicians and political parties to share various types of information as well as to respond rapidly to other politicians, to control messaging, and to engage directly with voters. In the 2019 federal election campaign, both Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh were extremely active and responsive on Twitter, allowing them to expand their reach and to engage with a younger and broader audience then might have otherwise occurred. The use of hashtags such as #cndpoli and #canadaelection2019 also worked to grant Twitter users live access to targeted news related to Canadian politics. Political parties are increasingly using social media not just to transmit information to voters, but to engage them, as well as to gauge public interest on social issues or policy proposals.
In 2019, Jagmeet Singh joined the popular social media platform TikTok (see left) and in a matter of months, the NDP leader gained more than 4.4 million followers with lip sync videos and videos documenting his everyday life.
Voters and others are also able to communicate more directly with political candidates and parties via social media, and people and organizations use social media to ask direct questions of politicians and put pressure on them to respond directly, requiring them to either visibly ignore the issue or to answer it in a public forum. Mass social media action may lead not only to social media engagement, but also policy change. For example, the “Fridays for Future” movement to stop climate change took off on social media, and relevant news coverage enabled the movement to gain international momentum, moving well-beyond its Swedish origins. Following the global climate strikes that “Fridays for Future” catalyzed, climate action became a central issue in the Canadian 2019 federal election.
Social Media, Data Collection, and MisInformation
In 2018, it was revealed that the data company Cambridge Analytica had used demographic information from Facebook to target political advertisements during the 2016 American election. While not directly tied to Canadian elections, the media coverage affair left many people to wonder how social media might influence elections elsewhere. In addition to the privacy concerns that emerged in the Cambridge Analytica affair, there are important concerns about filter bubbles, that is, how one’s social media feeds are so curated (including the targeted ads and data pushed by advertisers) that people are likely only to see those posts which correspond with or reinforce our worldview.
We are, then, unlikely to see materials that might challenge or broaden our understanding of the world. Further algorithms designed around relevancy and the popularity of posts (rather than the accuracy of information) can work to push social media posts into people’s feeds quickly spreading misinformation.
- Canada’s official social media accounts
- Statutes and regulations pertaining to broadcast media in Canada
- The role of social media in the 2019 federal election
Contributors: Lily Abate, Zhuolin Bai, Rebecca Dragusin, Nora Emtesali, Jiwon Han, Ruth Leung, Erica Karlsson, Adam MacKenzie, Sarah Reilly, Curtis Reitzel, and Lauryn Watters.