The Dark Side of Social Media

catherine swift

Most people who are active on social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like – probably think that the main downside of social media is the many opinionated, argumentative and downright distasteful trolls you are bound to encounter along the way.  The recent Canadian election revealed a much darker element of social media networks as it became clear that a very deliberate and surreptitious effort was underway to censor and distort information that was not favourable to the Trudeau Liberals. As these networks become more pervasive and influential in our day-to-day lives, this should be of great concern to anyone who values free speech and fair elections.

Hopefully most users of social media are well aware by now that much of the information exchanged is biased or not factual.  But most users likely also believe the networks are fairly agnostic about the content sent over their channel, and that unless someone is engaging in something illegal like hate speech, communications will not be censored or edited but merely transmitted without bias.  Prior to the Canadian election, there had been occasions when a social media network had unfairly “deplatformed” someone, seemingly for a particular point of view as opposed to something actually illegal, but in most cases those accounts were quickly restored.  It was telling, however, that the majority of the accounts that were removed or suspended were conservative-leaning or critical of leftist opinions.  In the weeks leading up to the October 21 Canadian election, the anti-Conservative censorship practiced by Facebook and Twitter really seemed to ramp up, and search engines such as Google and Bing also got into the act.

I personally experienced some of this “creative editing” on several occasions.  In the weeks before the election, I lost followers on twitter every day, something that had never happened in the almost 10 year period I have been active on twitter.  I soon realized it was because many of my followers had a conservative bent and were having their accounts suspended in droves just because they were expressing conservative views and being critical of Liberals. A business group I was working with prior to the election, The Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers and Businesses of Canada (CCMBC) had for years hosted a very well-followed Facebook page and had never had any problems with it until a few weeks prior to the election.  All of a sudden, they found their Facebook page suspended or otherwise shut down on several occasions, unable to use normal Facebook functions such as “boosting”, and in one instance was shut down and accused of “fake news” for merely sharing a Toronto Sun article.  Left-leaning Facebook accounts who were truly guilty of “fake news” as they dishonestly claimed various conservative candidates were white supremacists or other such lies did not encounter any interference with their online presence.  On the Sunday just before the election, the CCMBC’s Facebook page was inexplicably shut down altogether.

Some almost laughable rigging of various online functions was also apparent for the Conservative candidate in my riding.  When you searched for this candidate’s name – a person who was a former MP and well known in the community – the first listing that came up on the search engine was a deceased US citizen with the same name.  Other searches also showed that the Liberal candidate’s news stories were always prioritized and given top billing.  These days it is likely that the first place anyone would go to get information about candidates in their riding would be an online search engine, so any bias built into online searches or content will surely have an impact on election fairness.  The foregoing examples were only ones that I personally encountered.  There must have been many, many similar experiences with other groups and individuals across Canada.

Over the past few years senior officials in Trudeau’s entourage have conducted regular meetings with executives at the major social media companies, and the Liberals have frequently mused about the need – in their view – to more closely monitor and possibly censor social media for undesirable content.  It seems that in this election, undesirable content was defined as anything that criticized Liberals, no matter how true and relevant it was.  In addition to the Liberals’ bribery of most of the legacy media & massive spending by unions on Liberal-friendly advertising, it also appears major social media concerns and search engines were shilling for the Liberals.  With all this clandestine and biased firepower, in retrospect it’s amazing the Liberals could only eke out a minority government.

Dirty tricks have always been a part of politics and always will be, but voters should be better informed about what the tricksters are up to and the biases they exercise.  Society is becoming more dependent on a range of online sources of information and discussion, and most people perceive the major social media networks to be mere conduits through which information is transmitted, not censors and selective editors.  In that sense, these services are often considered similar to “utilities” like the phone company, but can you imagine the phone company refusing to put through a call because of the political views of the caller?  And if you think the activities of these giant companies was problematic in the Canadian election, just wait until they go into hyper-drive for the 2020 US election.  Hopefully some action will be taken soon to ensure more balanced and equal treatment of all legitimate content on social media, as the potential impact on free speech and democracy will only increase in future.

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