Democracy in the Digital Age


Remarks for the Honourable Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions.

Ottawa, November 9, 2017.

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Good morning. Thank you, Mayor Watson, for the warm welcome and for inviting me to speak. I’d like to thank the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and all of the partners in this speaker’s series for hosting me here today. I would also like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people, who are among this land’s original caretakers.

It's a pleasure to be here today to speak to you about the importance of democracy and the Canadian democratic process.

I`ve decided to speak to you this morning about democracy in the digital era. Recently, I`ve been reflecting on how much my thinking on this topic has changed since the Prime Minister appointed me to this position less than a year ago.

I think that`s a reflection of how dramatically and rapidly the digital world - and our understanding of it - changes. In 2015, two short years ago, no one was thinking about the spread of fake news, or how social media tools and platforms could be used to co-opt political messages and sentiments. Yet in 2016, this became a stark reality. And the question I continue to ask myself and my team is what can we expect and how do we prepare for 2019?

As the Minister of Democratic Institutions, my work consists of improving, strengthening and protecting Canadian democracy. I accept this responsibility with great humility. It is a responsibility that affects all Canadians and is the cornerstone of the way we do things in this country. I firmly believe that the effectiveness of our democratic institutions and the health of our democracy are what truly define our national identity.

But we are not in the habit of talking about democracy in Canada, about our democratic values and our roles and responsibilities as citizens. We spend time and money and make efforts to promote these things abroad, and we should continue to do so. The events of this past year, though, have shown how important it is to have this conversation right here at home.

On International Democracy Day in September, I visited a grade ten class just down the street at Lisgar Collegiate Institute.  One of the first questions I received was from a sly student who was hoping to put me on the spot, `testing how legit I was` he said. He asked me with a smile, “Do you know what the word democracy actually means?” I was glad to get the question, because it allowed me to get back to first principles. Democracy comes from `Demos` - the people- and `Kratia` which roughly translates to power or strength. Quite literally, the power of the people. Though there are many ways in which we exercise this power, the most powerful of which is through the vote we cast on Election Day.

And when we think about cyber threats, from abroad or from within, their target is the voter because our citizens hold the greatest power of all: determining who governs them.

I have often said that a democracy is only as strong as the citizens who form it. When democratic society works for the people it represents, when a diversity of views are represented and citizens feel empowered to participate in democratic life, that is when democracy truly flourishes.

In my capacity as Minister of Democratic Institutions, I see my role, on the one hand, as a steward of Canada’s democratic institutions and traditions. I think this is particularly important at this moment in time when democratic values and traditions are the focus of so much public attention.

On the other hand, I also believe that my role as Minister comes with a responsibility to champion democracy in Canada. And to champion opportunities for our democracy to be inclusive, so that all Canadians feel empowered to participate and contribute meaningfully in democratic life.

The question that continues to linger in my mind is: what are the tools and mechanisms that citizens need to exercise their democratic power in this new digital era?

I think this question is critically important today.

The good news is that it's never been easier to get involved than it is today, with technology offering us more opportunities to make connections and express ourselves. However, as we all know, these same tools may also serve less noble causes. It's one of the great contradictions of our digital age: though we have greater access to information than ever before, we may also be less informed and less interested in getting involved. How can we change that? How can we make the most of what the information age has to offer and put it to good use?

In a practical sense, our digital age will facilitate much of that information sharing, and our digital culture in part is driving this desire for information. We can share this information online for all Canadians in the blink of an eye. And a digital age that offers Canadians so many opportunities to engage and learn has conditioned people to seek out these opportunities. It’s a very modest example perhaps of what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said we form our tools and then they form us.

In our digital world, these tools can bring people together and unite Canadians in democratic debate. However, in the wrong hands, they can also divide us and harm our democracy. We all know that there are some who seek to undermine or jeopardize democracy. I can assure you that our government will do all that it can to prevent that from happening.

The security and protection of Canadians is a priority for the Government, and that must include the protection of our democratic system. It is true that Canadians still vote using a pencil and a paper ballot, and votes are counted by hand. But think about the importance of email, social networks, the websites we rely on, and the information that we keep online.

An important area of my mandate is leading the Government of Canada’s efforts to defend the democratic process from cyber threats. We have seen instances around the world of foreign actors attempting to influence the democratic process. High profile cases in the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, are just a few examples.

Democracy is based on trust in the process and trust in the outcome. We all know that there are those in this world who would seek to undermine or damage Canadian democracy. I can tell you that the Government of Canada takes this seriously and is determined to do all we can to prevent that from happening.

We owe it to Canadians to be proactive. That’s why I asked the Communications Security Establishment earlier this year to analyze and make public an assessment of the current risk of cyber threats and possible hacking of Canada’s democratic process.

This report was the first of its kind in the world to be made public and is available to read online. The report concluded that while there are no indications that nation-states have used cyber capabilities to target Canada, there are some worrisome trends.

The CSE also concluded that it is “highly probable” that the cyber threat activity will grow in quantity and sophistication in Canada, due in part to the fact that many effective cyber capabilities are publicly available, cheap and easy to use. I am currently reviewing the Canada Elections Act to ensure it meets the needs and changing dynamics of the digital age.

The solution, however, needs to be in partnership between government, media, social media, and citizens themselves. We all have a role to play in ensuring resilience in Canada`s democracy.

Everyone in this room likely has a story about how they participate in our democracy. Whether it’s volunteering your time by knocking on doors for a candidate, signing a petition, having a public policy debate around your dinner table or engaging in a political discussion online, participation takes many forms. I`ve had the very personal experience of knocking on doors, looking someone in the eye and asking them to trust me with their vote.

Canadians know that these efforts are essential. They also know that respect, dedication, hard work and cooperation are required to strengthen and protect our system of governance.

It has never been easier to get involved than it is today. Digital technology like social media can empower us and give us countless opportunities to make connections.

However, as we all know, the same digital technologies can be used toward some not so good ends, such as the spread of misinformation online, injected into the public discussion by those who masquerade as legitimate media sources or individuals.

A well-disguised fake news or disinformation campaign can erode the public’s faith in the reliability of traditional media sources. It can distort the public’s understanding of major issues.

We also know that the use of strategically developed algorithms play a role in influencing the information we have access to, and the media we consume. This has resulted in what is known as the “filter bubble.” A filter bubble is created when the algorithms of a search engine or online platform selectively choose results based on information about the user, such as past click behaviour and search history. The results shown then reflect one’s own tastes, values and beliefs, creating an echo chamber of similar perspectives.

Political activist Eli Pariser made an excellent point when he said that “it's easier than ever to hear only what you want to hear. That doesn't make a good citizen.”

In a world where information is being curated for you, what role and tools do you have as a citizen to determine what information you consume and then how you use it?

If we don't expose ourselves to different points of view, we greatly limit our ability to become critical, engaged citizens. A vision of the world that remains narrow or unquestioned prevents us from participating in democratic life in an informed, meaningful way. That can only be detrimental to democracy, which is precisely why we must continue to ask ourselves what we can do, as citizens, to be resilient in this digital age.

To fully participate, citizens need to have the right democratic vocabulary, and democratic literacy. Active citizenship in our digital age demands this, and we have to come to grips with how we can help Canadians navigate this new landscape. What does it mean to be a citizen in our democracy? What obligations do citizens have to be informed, to be accountable for their ability to hold government to account?

As citizens, we have a responsibility to make an effort to question our own opinions by taking the time to find diverse sources of information. With some effort on our part, we can access media from various countries, interest group blogs and many other sources that produce trustworthy and transparent information.

We all have the power to contribute to our democracy, and we can do so through small, concrete actions in our day to day lives. It starts by making a conscious decision to think critically about the information we are consuming. For example, when you’re scrolling your news feed and see a news article or meme that is intriguing, take a moment to ask yourself if this is something you know to be true before sharing it. A quick search can show you whether something has been reported in more than one place and help you to discern what is accurate.

Social media platforms, as the new arbiters of information, also have a role to play. While they are taking some steps towards transparency in advertising and targeting measures, they need to further question their internal policies as to who sees what information and how this is impacting our democratic discourse. I believe we are just beginning to understand this phenomenon and the conversation on its implications.

As citizens, how we respond to these issues will determine the health of our democracy. While we look to the future, we must continue to challenge ourselves and remain engaged and informed in our ever-evolving society.

We must ask ourselves important questions. How can we, as leaders in our communities, adapt to the new shifts and expectations of the digital age? What can we do to prevent misleading types of information from shaping our views? And how can governments, the private sector, the media and online platforms, work together to improve the way we engage as citizens, and maintain a healthy dialogue on the issues that matter most?

These are just a few questions that I am seized of in my work as Minister of Democratic Institutions. And with that, I welcome your questions and feedback.

Thank you for this opportunity.

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