Apathy and Atrophy: Whose Democracy Is This Anyway?
Fundamentally, media should inspire the communication of information. Yet, at the dawn of the computer age, the media missed the opportunity to fully exploit the new tools of digital technology. Meanwhile, it fundamentally changed the way people communicated, and quickly transformed our daily lives. And now, in the twenty-first century, social media may be on the verge of creating a more egalitarian society: by shining a hopeful light on true democracy. For democracy, in its simplest understanding and form, represents equality. After all, it is the pursuit for social fairness and the liberty of all citizens – in resistance against the subjective power of any oppressor. A new symbiotic relationship is ready to be forged. For both media and democracy to flourish, the media must promote social equality, and democracy needs to demonstrate honest and open communication.
In its infancy, the power of print represented the will of only a few: the printing press may have brought literacy to the masses and effected revolutions in America and France, but print journalism was always run by the privileged and their private publishing companies. As public education grew, newspapers were able to sell issues by appealing to the base needs and emotions of the newly literate. Yellow Journalism helped spark scores of the twentieth century’s wars, and also shaped the course of many election campaigns. In Canada, local newspapers aided and abetted the government’s internment of Japanese Canadians by spreading fear among its readers.
Due to the antagonistic and polarizing nature of modern politics, news publications commonly endorse one party over another. In Toronto, one newspaper regularly supports liberal viewpoints while the other major paper promotes the conservative agenda. As partiality becomes widely accepted, an understanding of the day’s political events will differ depending on the news source. And with media empires taking over more and more local papers, impartiality has withered, and journalistic integrity is at a premium.
During the twentieth century, print was joined by film, radio, and television to develop into what is considered modern mass media. All of these were eventually exploited by governmental agencies to shape public opinions and attitudes, and were used for the sole purpose of promoting public policy – for better and for worse. Joseph Goebbels understood that better than anyone; he managed all facets of Nazi Germany’s mass media, and thereby had absolute control of information. By perfecting the art of censorship, he shaped the image of the government, and even the psyche of Germany itself.
Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Stalin learned from the Nazis and began to just kill all dissenters. Free media died – for fear of their own lives and the lives of their families. History became as malleable as current events. George Orwell described it best as “historical revisionism.” Even today in Russia, Putin has near totalitarian control over media: where is the Fourth Estate, and why is he afraid of Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov?
Equally objectionable was Canada’s own brand of misinformation. Consider the demonization of the Eastern Bloc: the Red Scare started in Canada with the Kellock-Taschereau Commission in 1946. All communists were portrayed as evil, many people were unduly investigated, and the Cold War became the norm. Undeniably influenced and affected by an extreme interpretation of political “democracy,” paranoia became a tool for government propaganda.
When the electronic age and the Internet came along, traditional mass media were given a shock from which they have not yet recovered. Newspaper subscriptions are down. Publishing houses go bankrupt weekly. By 2013, E-books outsold hardcovers. We have become a fast-paced society which relies on instant news and personal messaging for our daily bread. A 140-character message is deemed long enough to capture our thoughts. Radio newscasts are the length of its frequency number, and television commercial breaks last longer than the program itself. Sound bites are the new reality as we are seemingly too busy for more than just casual indifference.
Twitter and Facebook have become the source of information for many. Tweets become headline news, regardless of whether they are factual or erroneous. We are fooled into believing that social media can make the world a better place: “Click if you don’t support sweatshops,” or “share if you hate racism.” This type of social interaction is delusional and creates atrophy; it’s effortless, and while it might feel cathartic, nothing significant is ever accomplished. It is simply disposable media: click and forget it.
As attention spans decrease, journalism also becomes lazy, and withers into a mere entertainment industry. Media have become carefully crafted forms of marketing which drive capitalism to its ultimate goal: the commercialization of an ignorant society. Independence of thought has been abandoned by those in power while it is paradoxically becoming the norm among young people. Desensitization feeds distrust, and the blogosphere is alive with examples: misgivings, apathy, and sometimes hate. Media ought to be a call to action rather than a pacifying white noise.
Meanwhile, the political elite in Ottawa rub their hands together in hopeful anticipation of widespread ignorance. Joe Q. Public, for them, is better off uninformed so that they may come to his rescue and offer enlightenment. Patronizing and nefarious, yes, but also a very powerful and effective strategy.
And despite all of this, there is a cry for transparency and true democratization of information. From WikiLeaks to protest movements like Occupy and Idle No More, citizens are yearning for equality and justice. On the surface, these movements appear unorganized and aimless, but that is precisely the point: they do not want to be told what to think or do. Patience has run out, and people are fed up with the traditional social order, including the Fourth Estate. A shift has taken place within the media; now, the average person, in fact all people, have equal access to shape public opinion via the Internet. Anyone with a phone can record an event, upload it to YouTube, and thus become the reporter.
Yet, while laws were passed to protect whistle-blowers, the American administration issued an arrest warrant for Edward Snowden: someone who is merely trying to expose the corruption of power, including Canada spying on Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry. Communications Security Establishment Canada may routinely spy on its own citizens, yet where is the Canadian media in all of this? Where is the investigative journalism? Governments disregard the masses at their own peril, and the media flout public opinion at their own irrelevance.
Political parties have become addicted to misusing media for influencing political opinion. Politicians themselves are shaped to appeal to the latest poll, a poll which may have been manufactured by the party itself. Image has become more important than substance. “Trudeaumania” swept Canada, and suddenly our Prime Minister was a rock star. In 1974, Robert Stanfield fumbled a football on a North Bay tarmac, and consequently lost an election. Brian Mulroney ushered in free trade with the United States in 1985 by singing with Ronald Reagan at the “Shamrock Summit.” Political policy-making has been supplanted by image consulting. If Marshall McLuhan were still with us today, he might argue, “The sender is the message.”
A fundamental change is needed in politics, and party pluralisation may just be the answer. There was a time when Canadians and Americans sanctimoniously derided the Soviet Union’s single-party system. One party is clearly insufficient, but two or three parties are hardly more radical: consider the insubstantial difference between a red Tory and a blue Liberal. And with the N.D.P.’s move to the middle, the choices become ambiguous. Freedom of expression is a human right, so perhaps a greater choice would serve us better. With better funding for smaller parties, a full spectrum of political choices could be offered, and everyone would have a voice. Polarization would become a thing of the past – like an archaic and ineffective artefact. Denmark has a multi-party system which makes majority governments highly unlikely; yet, this plurality forces its legislative members to negotiate and compromise. And the Danish citizens are, after all, the world’s happiest people.
Canada’s trickle-down approach to politics is simply out of touch. Like a money-hungry ad agency, our government creates false crises and then smugly solve them by decree. This serves no-one other than the party in power. Polls are conducted, not for the welfare of everyone, but instead, to selfishly get a regime re-elected. Politicians have become mere drones, regurgitating the party line. And if they don’t, they are sent to parliament’s backbenches, or worse, they lose their party’s endorsement at the next election. No longer speaking for their electorate, but instead, merely reporting what they have been told by the P.M.O. Stephen Harper gained the powers of a despot, and the electorate was cut off from any decision-making. And yet, Justin Trudeau has done little to change this. Pompous paternalism has damaged democracy by ignoring social responsibility.
On the other hand, if we passively allow this to continue, we are equally responsible for our own oppression. We need to re-evaluate how we interact with the media, and whether we are utilizing it optimally. Do Canadians really have a “voice?” Or, do we just mimic what our friends write on Facebook – sharing funny or cute pictures. Posting photos of babies, pets, and pretty sunsets is not innovative. The Arab Spring uprising revolutionized politics and democracy in the Middle East; and it started on social media with meaningful pleas for justice and equality. Perhaps Canadians need to use our own media voices more effectively if we also want to make positive changes in our own world.
The masses should decide for themselves what is important and essential for their own lives, and then enlighten the politicians. A free flow of ideas that truly expresses the collective consciousness is necessary; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for example, needs to be free from governmental and commercial manipulation so that it can objectively carry out its mandate to speak for the people. Otherwise, citizens become irrelevant while governments reign with irresponsibility.
Absolutely necessary for this to succeed is the clarity of reliable journalism. Ethical journalists are a rare breed today, and they are quickly lost in the cacophony of political action committees, narcissistic corporations, and contently obese unions. These interest groups do not represent the masses – the overwhelming “99 per cent” majority. No, instead, the people are dismissed as a superficial nuisance and thereby become voiceless victims. The new Fifth Estate is at war with the other four; and if media and governments do not adapt, they will be supplanted by a new order that will arise: one estate built on the foundations of a “Fifth Column.” Or worse, clandestine influences will unseat any attempt for meaningful advancement. Chaos could ensue and humanity would be lost.
It doesn’t have to be this way: a trickle-up theory is needed instead. Democracy and the media need to function as one for its mutual benefit; in concert, they can achieve a new liberty through a communal media and communicative democracy. In the end, the rule of the people, including the marginalized and disenfranchised, is paramount. The media can be used as beacons for change by illuminating the truth, highlighting injustice, and thereby shedding light into the dark corners of society and bringing about a true and just democracy – one with complete and total transparency.