The year is not quite over, but 2018 may well come to be known as the year of buyers’ remorse when it comes to politicians and social media.
Justin Trudeau came to power three years ago as arguably the most digitally savvy prime minister Canada has ever seen.
But in Paris on Monday, it was impossible to ignore a big disconnect in Trudeau’s remarks about politics and the media — full-throated praise for the role of traditional journalism and conspicuously faint praise for how politics is unravelling in the social-media domain.
“One of the institutions that is most under stress right now is a free, independent, free-thinking independent rigorous, robust, respected media,” Trudeau said at the Paris Peace Forum. “If a democracy is to function, you need to have an educated populace and you need to have an informed populace ready to make judicious decisions about who to grant power to, and when to take it away.”
When the prime minister talked about social media, however, he spoke about how easy it was to use the platforms to “make you angry or make you divided or make you hate your neighbour.” The prime minister did allow that social media was handy for governments to send out quick bulletins of condolence and such, but he also said that political conversations on social media can quickly become a race to the bottom.
“If it ends up in a screaming match between one side versus the other side, whoever is better at nasty is going to win,” he said. That observation is, unfortunately, all too correct.
In fact, when you think about it, 2018 has been a particularly destructive year all around for politics and social media. There’s the ongoing spectacle of Donald Trump’s Twitter rants — Trudeau didn’t mention the president by name during his Paris remarks but the indirect reference to Trump’s social-media habits seemed to be a clear subtext.
Meanwhile, back here in Canada, the Tony Clement saga last week hasn’t done anything to inspire confidence in politics and Instagram, though we should probably assume that most politicians are not using the platform as the former Conservative cabinet minister admitted to using it — as a medium to pursue women whose photos caught his notice.
This in turn led to Clement, a member of Parliament’s national-security committee, becoming a target of an extortion attempt by what he assumed to be a foreign actor.
Clement was long known as one of the early adopters of social media in the Canadian political world. Now he’s known as one of the more creepy digital denizens. That could be the story of 2018 overall for social media and politics — once fun and edgy and cool, now, as often as not, a little bit disturbing, and maybe even dangerous. And it’s not just the ongoing concern over potential Russian hacking worldwide, but also some home-grown, self-inflicted digital damage too.
Let’s not forget that 2018 is the year that brought us the explosive story of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and the revelations — from a Canadian, no less — about how raw data from millions of social-media users ended up in the hands of political operatives working for the Trump campaign.
The Cambridge Analytica controversy triggered a wave of agitation about political parties and their use of data on social media — but not enough, it should be noted, for Canadian political parties to include any data-privacy provisions in the latest election-reform legislation currently before the Senate.
The only conclusion there is that Canadian political parties are still in the fun/cool/edgy phase of digital-media adoption and aren’t yet ready to embrace the idea — which seems to be everywhere these days — that politics and social media can be also creepy, even potentially destructive to the greater good.
Trudeau is not a particularly nostalgic politician, but a glance at his remarks from Paris on Monday would seem to indicate that he’s learning an appreciation of traditional media the longer he’s in power, especially the more he sees of what’s happening on social media.
What the prime minister intends to do with that observation — how he intends to turn verbal support for traditional journalism into any kind of action — is another story for another day. But Trudeau does seem to be noticing, as many of us are, that 2018 hasn’t really inspired any confidence in how politics mixes with social media.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt