According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Canada has fallen to 18th in the world in terms of media freedom, well below Jamaica and even Costa Rica. We were 8th in the world in 2013. Such a decline in integrity signifies a major shift in our government’s position on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and their overall approach to, and growing acceptance of, censorship.
As Reporters Without Borders explains, “Despite recent positive steps, like the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate Quebec police surveillance of multiple journalists, and the adoption of a federal press “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, his [Justin Trudeau’s] first two years in office have been an overall disappointment.”
Censorship began as early January 9 this year when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up roadblocks to prevent media outlets from documenting a protest over a gas pipeline’s construction. Such stifling government tactics continued throughout the year, with whistleblowers and journalists’ informants being forcibly exposed.
Earlier this month, we saw another instance of ongoing censorship, related to the Liberal government, when True North Media’s Andrew Lawton had his promised question period reassigned to the more mainstream CTV, effectively blocking him. The telling and ironic aspect of this otherwise small betrayal was that it occurred at the first-ever Global Conference for Media Freedom.
On a positive note, the process of repealing Bill C-51, which greatly broadened the scope of government access to private information, has begun. However, it doesn’t look like the process will be complete before the 2019 elections. Furthermore, it is still being used to justify and conduct spying, both domestically and abroad.
The digital landscape is also a point of contention on the topic of media freedom, particularly the growing role of Twitter in political discourse.
In particular, we saw Twitter go after political dissent aimed at Justin Trudeau with the hashtag #TrudeauMustGo that was trending on July 19. Mainstream sources were quick to complain, calling the tweets a result of bots, which then prompted Twitter to remove them.
Only they weren’t bots. Following mass flagging and removal, #NotaBot quickly replaced the #TrudeauMustGo tweets, showing the bots claim was unfounded and just an excuse to curtail dissent.
While some may see the hashtags as just a bit of juvenile fun being squashed, they still qualify as legitimate criticism or at least an expression of discontent, both of which will be important in the upcoming election.
In an interview with the CBC on June 26, Michele Austin, head of government and public policy for Twitter Canada, clarified Twitter’s role, explaining that all political advertisements will be banned on the platform until official campaigning begins.
The meddling representative of the foreign tech giant then went on to address concerns over potential foreign meddling.
“There has been a great concern for Canadians with regard to foreign interference,” Austin told CBC. “We’ll be taking a look at what country various tweets have originated in, if they are Canadian, if they are off-site, and making sure that we understand the context of what’s happening during the campaign and that users have a really positive experience in terms of having an authentic conversation full of information, which is one of the reasons why they come to Twitter.”
Who is to decide what constitutes an “authentic conversation”, though? Ridicule of a position is even more effective than serious debate if the position falls apart under minor scrutiny, positive or not. However, such ridicule will likely be censored, leaving only a deceptively positive impression for spectators of otherwise ridiculous or harmful positions.
This is obviously the case given Twitter’s recent feature announcement that they want to “test” on Canada only 3 months before our election.
In a tweet from Twitter Canada, they write, “You asked for more control over your conversations, so starting next week we’re testing a new feature in Canada that will let you hide replies to your Tweets.” They then added, “For transparency, viewers everywhere can see hidden replies by going to a new icon or the dropdown menu.”
As one can imagine, there were many hidden replies for this announcement.
What this means is that all negative criticism can now be hidden at the touch of a button, with users having to jump through hoops if they want to see what people actually think about a given position or statement, rather than the purely positive, manufactured façade.
“By testing in one country we want to get feedback and better understand how this tool can improve before it’s available globally,” added Senior Product Manager Michelle Yasmeen Haq and Product Designer Brittany Forks on a blog post.
The decision to test an inherently censorious feature on only one country, specifically before our election, is highly suspicious. It makes no sense to limit your total sample size when money and analytics software are not issues. If you are genuinely looking for feedback on a new feature, why wouldn’t you try to collect from the most diverse sample you can get by sampling in multiple countries at the same time? If it doesn’t work out, just roll the feature back.
In a separate interview with CBC, Austin commented on this speculation, saying, “Canada has a deep and diverse conversation on Twitter. It’s a little bit different than other countries because Canada has a very multicultural background.”
However, while Canada is diverse, our politics are not. Much like the US, we essentially have two parties to choose from, the NDP hasn’t won in decades, and both countries’ main parties hold either centre-right or centre-left positions. Furthermore, it is arguable, given the high levels of immigration, that the US is just as culturally diverse, not to mention their much larger population to sample and that they are the host country for Twitter’s headquarters.
Given the rise of populist right-wing candidates around the world, who thrive on pointing out hypocrisies and mocking weak positions, as well as Twitter’s liberal bias and history of censoring conservative voices, it seems too coincidental that this feature is being tested during an election season that falls only a year before the 2020 American elections and Donald Trump’s second run for presidency.
Thus, it appears that Twitter wants to see how effective total control over someone’s online image is and if it has a quantitative effect on voting patterns, before implementing it in other countries, specifically the US.
While some Conservative Senators have spoken out against this new feature, it has received little media scrutiny since its announcement, and I could not find any words of condemnation or opposition from our Prime Minister. As such, it is likely that media censorship will only increase this election season, with tech giants playing a more active role in what is and is not seen online.