Social media is straining democracy at Vancouver city hall

In 2011, Vancouver Courier chose social media as its Newsmaker of the Year because of how these emerging platforms were affecting the public dialogue around major political decisions, particularly at city hall.

Over the past few years, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have come under increasing scrutiny for their ability to affect the outcome of elections and for allowing hate speech to propagate.

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Social media is a significant aspect of local politics today, and while I value the benefits of real-time reporting of news on Twitter and the ability to maintain social and business connections through Facebook, the downsides of social media are increasingly apparent to me.

The online debate — if you could call it that — over the recent proposal to build townhouses at 4575 Granville St. next to a hospice is an example of where social media amplified the issue and distorted reality.

Of course, there are a lot of questions that rise out of city council’s 7-4 rejection of the townhouse development proposal, such as why did it go as far as it did?

The fact that council had to sit through nine hours of public hearing over three days, and receive hundreds of pieces of correspondence, suggests that something about our public hearing process is not working.

Council would have seen it was going to be a gong show as hours’ worth of speakers queued up, and should have the ability to send the rezoning back to staff.

Why were mayor and council put in a position to vote on whether to rezone a property next to a hospice in the first place? Yes, the proposal met established policy guidelines, but staff should have seen the social implications of this vote well before it arrived in the council chamber.

One might also ask why there is a hospice located along a busy thoroughfare such as Granville Street as well, but that will not change anytime soon.

The tony parts of the Granville Street corridor should definitely be making way for higher density housing projects. However, requiring that the rents be “affordable” in a neighbourhood where shops and services cater to Vancouver’s well-heeled citizens strikes me as completely incongruous.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of staff time ended up wasted on just this one rezoning proposal. At a minimum, it begs for a post-mortem to explain how it happened, and how to avoid another blunder like it.

The outrage on social media about the 4575 Granville St. plan made the debate deeply personal. Motives were often assigned to proponents, staff and members of council to make them seem insensitive, out of touch and even corrupt.

Instead of informing the public, the platforms are straining our democracy.

Last April, people gathered in Vancouver for the pricy annual TED Talks conference to listen to speakers such as Carole Cadwalladr, a U.K. investigative journalist whose work on the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked Facebook earned her a Pulitzer Prize.

Her talk titled “Facebook's role in Brexit — and the threat to democracy” took aim at what she called “the gods of Silicon Valley.” It is riveting viewing and I suggest everyone search for it online.

With pinpoint precision, Cadwalladr excoriates the leadership of Facebook, Alphabet/Google and Twitter for their failure to fully reckon with the extent to which their tools are being used for the spread of lies and misinformation.

“This technology you have invented has been amazing, but now it’s a crime scene, and you have the evidence,” said Cadwalladr. “It is not enough to say that you will do better in the future, because to have any hope of stopping this from happening again, we have to know the past.”

She cites Brexit as evidence that “liberal democracy is broken” — blames social media and Facebook especially for “spreading lies in darkness” that helped the Leave vote to succeed.

The journalist then asks her Vancouver audience — and presumably the millions who will view her speech online — “Is this what we want? To let them get away with it, and to sit back and play with our phones as this darkness falls?”

My answer to those questions is unreservedly “no.”

But how do we stop it?


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