Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin
Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia
One of the biggest threats to democracy in the 21st century is the erosion of civility in public discourse and the polarization of politics.
Across the globe, the political landscape has become increasingly fractured. Individuals are engaging less with those who have viewpoints different from their own, while the tone of rhetoric from political leaders has become more combative.
Many believe the internet has accelerated and accentuated this shift. We are now able to digitally surround ourselves with people who share our political views while blocking out those who might have a different perspective.
In addition, much of the information we see online is determined by an algorithm — a set of calculations designed to predict what content we want to read, based on our browsing history and social media activity. This creates a feedback loop of information that reinforces our world view and rarely challenges our thinking.
The danger of echo chambers is that they can lead to a society that is less open-minded, less collaborative and less tolerant of new ideas. Echo chambers are also a breeding ground for disinformation and can enable the spread of false, misleading or manipulated content at an unprecedented speed and scope.
Not surprisingly, the influx of disinformation on the internet has led to an upsurge in cynicism. In the annual Edelman Trust Barometer survey, respondents from around the world said they have less trust in institutions, political systems, the media and each other. In Canada, the results of the survey are not quite as bleak, but we are not immune to the rise of disinformation, distrust and division in politics.
Like many, I find myself increasingly concerned about the fragility of our democracy and the undermining of democratic conventions and the public institutions that support them, including the free press and our professional, non-partisan public service.
Since my appointment as lieutenant-governor a year ago, I have been compelled to use my position to promote constructive participation in our democracy, encourage the cross-fertilization of opinions and bring together people with disparate viewpoints who have good intentions and want to make their communities safer, stronger and better connected.
On an individual level, we must all take responsibility to engage with people from different walks of life. We should approach those interactions as an opportunity to listen, learn and understand our neighbours views, which are often rooted in personal experience.
At a leadership level, we need elected officials, employers, community organizers and others with influence to reach out beyond the boundaries that divide people in our society. It’s imperative that we set a positive example for the next generation by leading with integrity, respect and a genuine will to cut through polarization and broker cross-partisan agreement.
To achieve this lofty goal, we need institutions to establish a neutral ground for honest discussion and the cross-pollination of ideas. Community groups, social services agencies, boards of trade, non-profits, and post-secondary institutions should strive to engage with one another and host conversations that build communities, bridge the gap, and enhance economic and political literacy.
One institution that is leading on this front is Simon Fraser University, which regularly hosts big-picture conversations as part of the SFU Public Square initiative.
This month marks SFU Public Square’s 7th annual Community Summit, which focused on “Confronting the Disinformation Age.” The summit will feature talks on political polarization, social media’s impact on democracy and working toward an inclusive digital society. I am excited to take part in this important conversation and hope you will join me.