Category Archives: Democratic Reform

How social media platforms are threatening democracy and what the Trudeau government can do about it.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, testifies in Congress following the uncovering of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users and subsequently used the profiles to help the Trump campaign.


There is a growing sense that Facebook and other social media platforms are a significant factor in the increasing polarization of our politics and even a real threat to democracy in countries such as the U.S. and Canada – countries with historically strong democratic institutions. This post explores how the business model chosen by the biggest platforms  has contributed to the weakening of our democratic institutions and what can be done to curb the socially destructive consequences of the platforms’ current operations.

The Facebook business model

The problem with  Facebook is that it is fine-tuned to be an addictive site in which politics – and information more broadly – are indistinguishable from entertainment. Of course, much the same could be said of cable TV news and the tabloid press. However, the engagement and immersion in social media is more intense  than the kind that television or print delivers. It encourages people to associate only with those who share their opinions, creating information filters regarding politics and general views of the world. By training its users to place greater importance on feelings of  agreement and belonging (“friends”, “like/dislike”) than on objective truth and facts, Facebook has created a gigantic forum for tribalism. Or more precisely, a forum for tribalism that contains a multitude of tribes that define themselves in terms of politics, race, ethnicity, religion, cultural/consumer preferences and social status. And because they are tribes existing in an information bubble with news of the outside world delivered to them primarily by Facebook’s algorithms through its newsfeed, members of any given tribe are increasingly oblivious to any views other than their own. They are also increasingly oblivious (and even hostile) to the notion of objective truth and facts more generally.

Moreover, Facebook’s algorithms are designed to feed users, over time, ever more extreme material that plays to these tribal identities. In strictly business terms, this increases the average time a user stays on the platform thereby increasing Facebook’s advertising revenue. In political and social terms, it leads to a polarized electorate and society.

98% of Facebook’s revenue comes from selling ads and the company has every incentive to continue to collect as much private data as it can on its users in order to keep them engaged on the site and to allow ad buyers to effectively target their ads. The potential impact  of a business model driven by this combination of intense immersion and surveillance manifested itself when it was revealed that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had obtained information about 50 million Facebook users in order to develop psychological profiles to assist the Trump campaign. That number has since risen to 87 million. Yet Facebook seems incapable of accepting the fact that its relentless pursuit of growth, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg characterizes as encouraging “openness and connection” globally, has been socially destructive.

But concerns over tribalization and the debasement of truth and facts caused by social media, should not stop with Facebook. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, also share an aspiration to become the primary lens through which we both view the world and participate in it. And Google, in particular, suffers from many of the same problems as Facebook. Continue reading

Ontario News Highlights and Legislative Agenda for October 27

queens-park-dailyOntario Government introduces strict, new rules for campaign donations.




Provincial riding associations will receive public money for campaigns and MPPs and candidates will be banned from attending political fundraisers under campaign finance amendments announced by the Ontario government yesterday.

The amendments are to the Election Finances Statute Law Amendment Act, which was reintroduced in the legislature on this fall. The bill has passed Second Reading in the legislature, and has been referred to the Standing Committee on General Government for review.

During the committee process due to begin next week, the government intends to introduce two new legislative amendments that, if approved by the committee, will be added to the bill:

  • Banning MPPs, candidates, party leaders, nomination contestants and leadership contestants from attending political fundraising events. This restriction would not apply to non-fundraising events or events where tickets are sold only to cover the cost of the event. It would also not impact funds raised by other means, e.g., by phone or email.
  • Providing an allowance to constituency associations to offset fundraising revenues that they would no longer receive due to the reforms in the bill. Registered constituency associations in each riding would divide $25,000 per year (indexed annually), based on the proportion of votes each registered candidate received in the most recent election.

With 122 ridings up for grabs in the June 7, 2018, election, that means it will cost an additional $3 million annually.

That’s atop the annual $2.71-per-vote subsidy the major political parties will receive beginning next year.

Under that formula — based on the results of the 2014 election — the Liberals, with 1,863,974 votes, would get $5.06 million annually, the Progressive Conservatives, with 1,508,811 votes, $4.09 million, the NDP, with 1,144,822 votes, $3.1 million, and the Green Party of Ontario, with 232,536 votes, $630,000.

The public money for riding associations is designed to help parties and riding associations deal with the fallout of annual riding contribution limits being cut to $1,200 a person — down from the current $9,975 — and the outright ban on union and corporate donations. Donors may also give $1,200 to central parties and another $1,200 for by-elections.

The new law would also limit third-party advertising – such as direct union or corporate donations – to $100,000 in advertising during elections and $600,000 in the six preceding months. There would be a $1-million spending limit during that period for political parties.

Opposition politicians expressed concern that because political staffers — such as chiefs of staff and ministerial policy advisors — would still be allowed to attend fundraisers, the proposed reforms would be undermined.

The opposition also criticized the fact that elected officials and candidates would continue to be allowed to engage in fundraising by phone or email.



Projected Ontario Legislative Business for Thursday, Oct. 27 

Main Chamber Business

Ontario Legislature Committee meetings for Thursday, Oct. 27

Search the full text, approval status, committee hearings and other details of all Ontario bills from the current session here!

Ontario News Highlights and Legislative Agenda for October 24

queens-park-dailyOntario News Highlight for October 24: Stunning upset in Niagara as 19 yr. old social conservative takes PC nomination


Sam Oosterhoff, a A 19-year-old social conservative university student, stunned the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership Saturday night, winning the nomination for a Nov. 17 byelection in the solidly conservative Niagara seat held by former PC leader Tim Hudak.

Oosterhoff’s surprise victory over PC president Rick Dykstra is a huge set back for PC Leader Patrick Brown who has been trying to present a more middle of the road image of late.

Oosterhoff will be facing off against Liberal lawyer Vicky Ringuette and Mike Thomas of the NDP, next month. Ontario’s new sex education curriculum was a central issue for many of  Oosterhoff’s supporters. Some of the teenager’s supporters marched with pro-life placards at voting locations on Saturday and distributed pamphlets with dead fetuses.

The religious right clearly helped  Oosterhoff secure the victory. The final tally was 662 votes to 501 for Dykstra, 245 for Mike Williscraft, and 235 for Niagara regional councillor Tony Quirk.

Saturday’s setback for Brown comes as the Tories appeared to be gaining momentum. They lead in most polls and have high hopes of winning the other Nov. 17 byelection in the Liberal stronghold of Ottawa-Vanier, where former Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin is their candidate.

Continue reading

Federal and Ontario News Round-up for Oct. 5

Federal News Round-up

The federal government has thrown down the gauntlet to provinces without some form of carbon pricing.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a federal carbon pricing deadline all provinces must comply with by 2018 — or the federal government will impose a price.

The federal government’s direct-pricing plan means polluters in provinces without a carbon pricing scheme will pay $10 per tonne starting in 2018, increasing to $50 per tonne by 2022.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is leading the provincial opposition to the move. According to the Saskatchewan government, the carbon tax will draw more than $2.5 billion out of the provincial economy (even though Trudeau promised to return funds related to any federal carbon levy to the provinces) and make it a less competitive place to do business. Wall also said the government estimates the carbon tax will cost the average family $1,250 a year. Wall is joined by a number of Maritime provinces in opposition to the move.

British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec all have implemented (or will soon implement) carbon pricing schemes that will exceed the floor price announced by Trudeau. However, Alberta appears to making its support for the measure conditional on federal approval of proposed pipelines.

Ontario News Round-up

The Liberal government’s election financing legislation, Bill 2,  passed second reading unanimously Tuesday – but the opposition parties still have complaints about the government’s reform efforts.

Both opposition parties object to the proposed ban on backbench MPP’s attending fundraising events and the limits placed on the Auditor-General’s ability to monitor government advertising it considers partisan.

Bill 2 has been referred to the Standing Committee on General Government and committee hearings are likely to be held shortly.

The key changes in the province’s election financing rules included in Bill 2 are as follows:

  • Reducing the total amount individuals can donate by almost 90 per cent (from $33,250 to $3,600 per year) — to a maximum of $1,200 to a political party, $1,200 to its candidates and $1,200 to its constituency associations or nomination contestants in an election year;
  • Strengthening the rules to address coordination between political actors and third parties;
  • Limits on third party, election-related  advertising; and
  • New rules capping spending on party leadership campaigns.

The government has also proposed further amendment to ban MPPs, candidates, party leaders, nomination contestants and leadership contestants from attending political fundraising events. That amendment was not included in the version of Bill 2 approved Tuesday and will be tabled in committee.