As the saying goes, it’s hard to see the water when you’re a fish — we often overlook what’s all around us, hiding in plain sight.
The sudden backlash against Bill C-10 that argues the government’s effort to modernize the Broadcasting Act is an overreaching attempt to control the free speech and thought of Canadians is as predictable as it is dangerous — in fact, this very line of argument demonstrates exactly why Bill C-10 is an important and necessary tool for strengthening our democracy.
For many years, observers have sounded alarm bells about the role of social media in manipulating public opinion at scale by spreading fake news and toxic narratives. In response to these accusations, social media companies have engaged in Orwellian-like doublethink by styling themselves as the defenders of free speech.
While it is certainly compelling to see social media as the public square’s modern equivalent, where citizens are free to share and debate ideas, the reality is these platforms are more like privately owned shopping malls. To achieve their commercial goals, these companies make and enforce rules about everything from whom is welcome, to which ideas can be publicly broadcast.
For better or for worse, the algorithms, recommendation-engines and corporate policies of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Google already decide and control what Canadians read and watch on the Internet, and they are currently completely unaccountable for that. Most recently, Facebook and Twitter acted to silence former U.S. President Donald Trump, and Amazon unilaterally killed the alternative “free speech” platform Parler by evicting it from the AWS cloud computing service. Numerous other examples, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, interference by foreign operatives in the 2016 U.S. federal election, and the Andrew Bosworth Memo that was leaked to the New York Times last year illustrate the problem with this fundamental lack of accountability — and yet, these “web giants” are profit-driven businesses with no commercial or legal incentive to change their ways, or even explain them.
Faced with growing public scrutiny, these technology companies have engaged in a well-documented pattern of financing sympathetic research at universities and think tanks, investing in non-profit advocacy groups, and funding pro-business coalitions that masquerade as public-interest projects for the purpose of influencing public opinion and policymakers. This repeated pattern of behaviour has been investigated and reported on for over a decade by journalists from the Financial Times, NY Magazine and Wired among others.
In a 14 December 2020 article, the New York Times reported on a leaked document (the authenticity of which The Times verified) that outlined in detail the tactics used by Google to advance its interests in the European Union. In the context of Bill C-10, this playbook sounds eerily familiar:
“Academic allies” would raise questions about the new rules. Google would attempt to erode support within the European Commission to complicate the policymaking process. And the company would try to seed a trans-Atlantic trade dispute by enlisting U.S. officials against … European policy.
It should therefore come as a surprise to nobody that the moment social media companies were faced with the prospect of CRTC oversight, a groundswell of misinformed public outcry suddenly appeared demanding ‘freedom of speech’ from elected officials. Perhaps coincidentally, it should also surprise nobody that at the time of this writing, the first pages of search results for “Bill C-10” on both Facebook and Google contain countless opinion pieces claiming the government wants to regulate free speech, and precisely zero articles outlining how the corporate agendas of these unregulated “web giants” might be undermining democratic society by determining the ideas and issues that ordinary citizens discover on the Internet.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are now witnessing public opinion being manipulated at scale through a deliberate campaign of misinformation by commercial interests that would prefer to avoid the same regulatory oversight applied to broadcast media. The sudden orchestrated backlash against C-10 literally proves its necessity.
Parliament can choose to either roll over and accept the self-interested mall-cop guidelines of social media platforms, or insist on democratic oversight with public accountability by including these platforms in Bill C-10.
Perhaps now more than ever, we need to see the water around us.