Sure, the Toronto Star uncovered that Mayor Rob Ford used crack. And, yes, the New York Times and the Washington Post have done exemplary work exposing the venality and the criminality of the Trump administration.
But, in recent years, the roles daily newspapers played in the body politic – helping set the agenda, managing the dialogue, holding the players to account – have been lost. Specialized newspapers like Ottawa’s Hill Times (where I’m also a columnist) continue to publish and continue to have an impact – such as when the Hill Times revealed that a Calgary Liberal MP was under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct, leading to his departure from Justin Trudeau’s caucus.
But the dailies? Not so much.
Proof is found in the revelation that the Canadian government now spends far more on Internet-based media than it does on any other. Proof is found in the cataclysmic decline in traditional newspaper revenues, as advertisers and readers flock to Facebook and the Internet’s myriad progeny. The federal government spent more on Facebook ads in Trudeau’s first year in government, for example, than was spent on Facebook ads in the entire decade that preceded it.
Proof is found, too, in the way our democracies are now under assault – by those using Facebook and Twitter and the like to manipulate and intimidate voters. In recent days, executives from Facebook and Twitter have been questioned by U.S. senators, and been forced to admit they knowingly took millions from Russian operators to propagate lies – which then assisted Russia in installing a puppet in the White House.
The Facebook and Twitter executives didn’t impress many. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said that Twitter’s appearance before he and his colleagues – the ones probing Russian criminal conduct during the 2016 presidential election – was “deeply disappointing.”
“Their response was frankly inadequate on almost every level,” Warner later told the media. “I’m more than a bit surprised that anyone from the Twitter team would think that the presentation they made to the Senate staff today even began to answer the kind of questions we’d asked. So there is a lot more work they need to do.”
Prior to their meeting with the Senate, Twitter finally admitted that they played willing host to 201 accounts linked to Russian-generated Facebook activity. These accounts, congressional investigators say, were working to influence the 2016 election and defeat Hillary Clinton. All those accounts, Twitter insisted, have now been deleted.
But Twitter, in my limited personal experience – limited because I unfortunately lack the assistance of hundreds of seasoned congressional investigators – is willingly, and knowingly, providing a platform for those who traffic in untruths. It and Facebook still profit from lies. Here’s a case study:
For several months, my wife and I and others in Toronto – the Simon Wiesenthal Center, B’nai Brith, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, human rights lawyer Richard Warman and many others – have been engaged in a battle with the publishers of a Holocaust-denying neo-Nazi newspaper. With the welcome assistance of the now sadly retired MP Judy Foote, we persuaded the federal government to stop delivering the hate rag through the postal system. And we have gone after its editor and publisher with criminal and civil complaints that will – we hope – put it out of business.
But recently, one of the columnists in this bottom-feeding hate rag – which publishes online, around the world – posted on Twitter a “news report” that stated, as a fact, that I murdered a student who was delivering the newspaper, which lionizes Adolf Hitler, defames gays and lesbians, and regularly promotes the notion that the Holocaust is a hoax. The fake news report was designed to look like an actual TV report, with professional-looking headlines and graphics. It was topped with a photo of me.
I complained to Twitter, using the reporting mechanism Twitter created. A few hours later, when I returned to check on the false news report, it was gone.
My wife, however, also checked. And she saw the false news report was still there. Twitter hadn’t removed the lie – it had merely prevented me from seeing the lie, in the apparent hope that I would forget about it.
I got in touch with a friend, Jennifer Hollett, who is senior executive at Twitter. She said she was “so sorry to see this. I’ll escalate this on my end, to have someone take another look.” Two days later, she got back to me and said: “Hi Warren, I escalated this as far as I could, but the departments involved stand by the original decision.”
So Twitter provided a free platform to a racist, who created a professional-looking report that I had committed the very worst crime and after receiving complaints, refused to do anything about it.
I’ve retained a smart and effective Ottawa lawyer to sue Twitter for their willingness to propagate false and defamatory ‘news’ – and for refusing to do anything about it, even after it has been brought to their attention. Late last week, we served them with a libel notice. I’ll let you know how Twitter responds.
In the meantime, the diminution of our democracy continues apace, and Facebook and Twitter have played an outsized role in that. Clinton – on whose campaign my wife and I worked in three states – was in Canada last week, and she knows better than most what’s at stake here.
Clinton, who received three million more votes than Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election, provides us all with the most compelling evidence of what happens when Facebook and Twitter are permitted to cheerfully provide a platform for hatred and lies. Facebook and Twitter “have a long way to go” before they redeem themselves for what they have done to democracy, Clinton says.
Indeed they do.
Will they change? The early evidence, as Warner (and the likes of me) would say, is not at all encouraging.
Newspapers, as they once were, are gone. So, too, their influence.
Forgive us, however, for yearning for those good old days, when foul lies and base hatred weren’t considered defensible by the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.