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Market Squared: Leave the virtual town square open for everyone

This week, let's remember that social media is for everyone, and that there's definitely a value to it.

On Tuesday, Mayor Cam Guthrie took part in a town hall on the Facebook group Guelph This & That, another example of not just the mayor’s social media savviness, but of how social media is changing the face of politics. There was Mayor Guthrie, in an Ottawa hotel room, answering questions, addressing concerns, being lauded for his engagement.

Oh, what a time we live in. 

Of course, when we hear about social media and politics lately, its usually bad news. Fake news, trolls, bad actors, there’s a world full of bad hombres on the internet, but there can be some good too. For example, using the platform of Facebook Live to have an open and honest discussion about political matters. It’s a good thing.

There’s got to be a great debate about how we use social media. Is it just a conveyance of information? Is it the digital meeting space? The website as soapbox? A bubble for collecting like-minded people and keeping out those that think differently? 

Leaving aside the partisanship, a Telegraph article I found from February 2011 said that we now receive 174 newspapers worth of information every day. That’s  five-times as much information as we took in on a daily basis in 1986, and in the last six-and-a-half years how much information do we absorb everyday in August 2017? 

So what does that have to do with the mayor on Facebook Live? I’m just saying that I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to dive into the world of social media since we’re already in information overload. 

Plus, it can be a cesspool. It can make you depressed about the news, or even your own life. There was an a study released earlier this year that said overuse of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like cause feelings of inadequacy and anxiety among 14 through 24-year-olds. On social media it always seems like you’re seeing either people making you angry, or people having so much more fun than you. 

Here’s the thing, in the computer, as well as in life, we create the world we want to live in, and if you want a veritable Parisian salon of ideas and intelligent debate, you might have to get off your high horse and take part. 

Take our MPP Liz Sandals for example, she’s the only politician in Queen’s Park without a Twitter address. Now some are more active than others, and some members have assistance with their feed, but by the vast, vast, vast majority, they have them. Not Liz Sandals though, and I’ve been keeping up the peer pressure hard the last four years every time I do a sit down interview with her. 

In a stark difference, it seems that Sandals’ federal counterpart Lloyd Longfield has a presence on just about every social media site except Friend-Czar, which is a completely made up thing I saw on a TV show once. Longfield has three-times as many followers as Sandals on his official Facebook page, and not only does he have Twitter, but an Instagram and YouTube feed as well. Longfield makes it easy to engage with him without ever having to get out of your pyjamas. 

Looking to our city council, there are only about four members around the horseshoe that don’t have a regular social media presence on at least one site, usually Facebook or Twitter. Through these platforms, councillors can interact with constituents, share information, and offer insight into their thought processes as things happen in the council chamber. Self-promotion too? Sure, that’s part of the fun.

But we can’t deny the dark side. A CBC News article earlier this year pointed out that women face incredible instances of misogyny online, from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to several formerly Progressive Conservative MLAs in Alberta. 

"There's certainly a broader sexism that women working in politics are facing on a regular basis,” said University of Guelph associate professor Tamara Small in the CBC piece. Small studies the impact of social media on politics. "Women politicians have for years been criticized or treated in ways that their male counterparts haven't been." 

Small added that the social media abuse makes politics look "rather inhospitable” for women, but I think the broader point that IRL (in real life) politics has always been harder for women then it has been men. I’ve spoken to a number of female candidates who stood in the last municipal election, and while there was online harassment, there was also the regular kind like crank calls and stolen election signs. When people want to be abusive jerks, they find a way . . .

But none of this should stop people from using social media as a platform for engaging and sharing information. When people tell me they learn what’s going on at city council via my Twitter feed, it reminds me of the wicked responsibility of the platform, and it’s in the back of my head whenever a certain person in the White House says something I violently disagree with. Even now. 

To that point though, it’s also a reminder that when the debate stage, be it digital or non-digital, is abandoned by the moderates, the vacuum is filled by the most extreme voices on all sides. Of course, extremists don’t wait for permission, so why give them an opening? 

That leads to another sticky-wicket when it comes to social media: to block or not to block. Donald Trump’s presidency has tested the notion of whether or not his tweets are official communiques from his office, and if they are, does his blocking of followers from viewing his tweets constitute a violation of Freedom of Speech? 

Since what’s passed in U.S. Politics is usually prologue for events here in Canada, we must consider this question now. There’s no moral or constitutional imperative to subscribe to a newspaper, or listen to the radio, or access a website, but we all have the right to be able to ask questions of our leaders and get answers from them. If the channels they use are turned off to specific people, are those individuals, in this one way, being barred from the political process? 

Someone sent to me on Twitter that a Guelph municipal politician had blocked them on Twitter and they claimed to not know why. I don’t know why either. What I do know is that people have anonymously said vicious things on the internet they would never say to people they meet in person, which says to me that people still have a civil tongue in their head. They just need to remember it extends to their finger tips. 

Given the reaction to Guthrie’s digital town hall, the free flowing discussion and the information shared on a wide variety of civic issues, it would be a shame for this all to go away because the happy few can’t control themselves. The physical town square was made for everyone, and the virtual one should be too.