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John Boyko
John Boyko


Changing democracy, 140 characters at a time Add to ...

Twitter is our Athenian agora. It is reshaping our democracy. A president, pope, prime minister or peasant can stand and proclaim whatever they wish. Within seconds, they will be applauded by some while others, wearing the technological robes of Socrates, will tear their pronouncement asunder. I am celebrating my third month on Twitter and offer seven things I have learned.

It mocks. Twitter is where negative ads go to die. The Conservative Party’s anticipated attack on Justin Trudeau was met with a withering response. People were rallied to donate to the charities that Mr. Trudeau was supporting with his mustache and good-natured “striptease.” An endless parade of criticisms of Stephen Harper’s tenure claimed that it was he who was in over his head. Twitter may bring attack ads to their well-deserved demise.

It teaches. The most popular tweets make a short statement or pose an interesting question, with a link to an article, usually in a respected newspaper, magazine or professional journal. People are thereby exposed to ideas and facts they might never otherwise consider. An informed electorate is the harbinger of a thriving democracy and the bane of those who wish to mislead or divide.

It attacks. I once posed what I thought was a reasonable question about the American gun control debate – something about those supporting the second amendment having trouble with the first. I was called a fascist, a crypto-communist, a Canadian wimp, and worse. Jim Carrey produced a devilishly funny satirical video about the debate. The attacks, not on his ideas but on him, were devastating. It can get ugly out there. But democracy is messy. Even through often unfair and unreasonable attacks, there is debate and, maybe, as I’ve witnessed, a little softening of positions and a glimmering of tolerance and understanding.

It checks. We know that Question Period offers neither questions nor answers. Twitter has both. Pity the politician like Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who admitted to not reading some reports regarding the science of climate change, or MP Dean Del Mastro, who, after allegations of some questionable election dealings, has for months been absent from his ethics committee. Many of those ignored in the House and media find the heirs of Socrates holding their feet to the fire.

It scorns. One almost felt sorry for CNN when it – falsely as it turned out – reported that the perpetrator of the Boston bombings had been arrested. Tweets began announcing that CNN was reporting on the Confederacy winning the Civil War, that John Lennon had shot someone in New York, and more. The respect most of those on Twitter feel for newspapers is matched by the disdain with which they hold television news – all television news. Similarly, political leaders falling into gaffes, which usually means telling a truth or revealing a belief otherwise concealed, are torn up. Lies and hypocrisy are exposed. Twitter is creating its own fourth estate.

It earns. Many confuse Twitter for a confessional, diary or billboard. They are generally ignored. However, as candidate Barack Obama proved, and Justin Trudeau proved again, it is a powerful political fundraising tool. Mr. Trudeau raised more money than all of his rivals combined and has more than a million dollars left to fill Liberal coffers. Much of that fundraising effort was due to his intelligent Twitter presence.

It inspires. From nowhere came women noting incidents of their having suffered sexual harassment. And then came more and more. As the numbers grew, so did the outrage and desire to act. Meanwhile, as we moved through our busy lives and waded through the muck of too much information, Chris Hadfield tweeted awe-inspiring images of our little planet. Few were not moved to fall silent and reflect.

Social media, within which Twitter is an important part, will continue to evolve, but it is here to stay. Political leaders who fail to understand its power will continue to be its victims. We owe it to ourselves to consider the ways in which it is changing the nature of our public discourse and, through those changes, the manner in which we govern ourselves. Our democracy is being changed for the better, 140 characters at a time.

John Boyko is the author of five books on Canadian politics and history, including Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, and lives in Lakefield, Ont.

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