In an age of increased globalization, social media makes it easy for people to voice their opinions online, discuss issues, organize around causes, and hold leaders accountable. However, media and technology have a tendency to amplify both positive and negative trends in contemporary discourse. In recent years, media technologies, and social media in particular, have progressed to a point where they have started to undermine democracy.
McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy recently launched the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy to combat threats to democracy through research and public debate about how media and technology affect social systems and shape public policies.
Threats to democracy include fake news, user privacy breaches, influence campaigns, “bots,” and the growth of information cocoons. These can lead to an increase in media fragmentation, political polarization, and, in the worst cases, extremism. Despite having access to huge amounts of knowledge at their fingertips, most people live in an information cocoon—interacting only with a limited number of people online who tend to share the same views. These social media “bubbles” can become ideological echo chambers reverberating with the same types of online content and opinions, regardless of their veracity, to the exclusion of a diversity of ideas. As such, those in power and with large online platforms can use media and technology to set agendas and spread hate and disinformation.
“The kinds of democratic harms we see arising today—from mis- and disinformation to political polarization and election interference […] are not the result of ‘bad actors,’ they are baked into our tech infrastructure, and into our social investments and institutions,” Sonja Solomun, the Research Director of the Centre, wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.
The Centre is run by a team of researchers and journalists who are committed to changing how the public receives online media. They hope to bring about lasting structural change through the design of new technologies and economic models to foster accountable governance, and are thus attempting to rebuild and reimagine digital infrastructure in the public interest.
“I joined [the Centre] because this is public-facing work that directly speaks to the communities and groups that are most affected by the kinds of harms we see arising,” Solomun wrote. “At the end of the day, I firmly believe in the power of the public to mobilize for a different future, and to hold governments and technology companies to account for that future.”
The team is currently working on several projects. One of these is Tech-Informed Policy (TIP), an initiative to inform policy makers by explaining the implications of new technologies and their social consequences. They are also developing an essay series to examine how surveillance technologies deployed by public institutions and governments during the pandemic are disproportionately affecting historically surveilled populations, like low-wage workers and racialized groups.
The Centre is planning to hold events for students and the public. Aside from a monthly reading group, they are also hosting the Annual Beaverbrook Lecture, a two-part virtual event on abolishing surveillance capitalism.
In the future, the Centre hopes to support and amplify other initiatives working on issues of democracy and technology.
“A more democratic future for me is one where we value collective human life over property,” Solomun wrote. “That means thinking of technology––be it AI, data, or even things like privacy, as a possibility or as a relationship, rather than a commodity or as property. Once we depart from this premise, we can reimagine how we build, use, and govern these possibilities in ways that enrich collective life and public institutions.”