Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

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