Digital Politics in Canada: Promises and Realities

By Lori Williams

Edited by Tamara A. Small and Harold J. Jansen, University of Toronto Press, 2020/$49.95/328 pp.

For Canadians wrestling with the breakneck pace of digital innovation and its repercussions for long-established political practices, Digital Politics in Canada will come as a welcome read. Thoughtfully edited by Tamara A. Small and Harold J. Jansen, the book marks an important contribution to understanding how Canadian governments, parties, interest groups, media and—perhaps most importantly—citizens have adapted to profound changes in the digital universe. The authors and editors chronicle the impact of these changes, widening our lens beyond social media, websites and online services and platforms to consider how mobile devices, apps, constant connectivity and the evolving medium of podcasting are shaping Canadian politics. It’s a compelling inquiry into how the quality of our democracy hinges on our responses to the opportunities and risks associated with these technologies.

The book’s preface, written by Mount Royal University professor David Taras, outlines what he calls “digital shock”—the disruptive impact of digital technologies on traditional media, governments, political information such as polling, and the fragmentation of our society into “filter bubbles” (the digital curation of news to align with searchers’ values).

The first section of Digital Politics in Canada focuses on the response of political institutions to digitization. The authors examine how governments, elected officials, bureaucrats and political parties engage social media, online service delivery, digital campaigns, internet voting, data analytics and surveillance to their advantage and detriment. Several chapters touch on the challenges faced by legacy media, with one author envisioning a future for online, niche political journals targeting paying audiences—at a cost that will deter trolls.

The book’s second section investigates the promises and perils of digital technology for citizens. Authors consider how technologies in some cases merely reinforce traditional power dynamics, while in others they open new avenues of political activity, particularly for those who are marginalized.

In several chapters the increasing power exercised by political parties, governments and platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon is juxtaposed against growing accessibility and agency for the marginalized. University of Calgary lecturer Samantha C. Thrift analyzes a range of positive cyberfeminist practices through websites, online magazines, memes, apps and hashtags ranging from the international (#BeenRapedNeverReported) to local (Calgary’s #SafeStampede), while also decrying online predation and cyberharassment, particularly of women politicians. An insightful chapter on digital Indigenous politics explores the potential of online technologies for self-representation and governance, geographic inclusion and reconnection with language and traditions. It also warns of online racism, the digital divide (limited broadband internet access) and digitally enhanced state surveillance.

University of Lethbridge’s Harold J. Jansen, the co-editor of the book and co-author of a chapter tracing patterns of online engagement, highlights the potential of digital technologies to inform and engage citizens in novel ways but also to create problems such as slacktivism (online activity with little political impact), unethical use of citizens’ personal data (evidenced in the Cambridge Analytica scandal) and the use of disinformation and bots to manipulate and disrupt democracy.

The pioneering research and insights in this book provide critical tools to understand and inform our response to digital politics. Such research enhances our capacity to unleash the potential for enhanced democratic participation and to comprehend and curtail practices that imperil it.

Lori Williams is an associate professor in the faculty of policy studies at Mount Royal University.

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