Tag Archives: Canadian Politics

Fake news, questionable ethics and bad publicity

The American propagandist and “father of spin” Edward Bernays famously argued that the propaganda efforts which had been so important to the success of the U.S. wartime effort could be equally applied during times of peace and stable government.

If you follow me on Twitter or stay plugged into the day’s online news feeds, you may already be familiar with the case of Citizenship & Immigration Canada’s fake oath-taking event. If not, CIC staffers, under pressure from the Minister’s office and in cahoots with producers at the Conservative-friendly Sun TV News, orchestrated a make-believe citizenship ceremony for “new Canadians”. The problem is that the majority of the so-called new citizens who attended the event to take their oaths were actually government bureaucrats.

There are two immediately striking observations to be made here: the first is to question the effort and expense paid by a government department (on the taxpayer’s dime, no less) to organize a media event that was more focused on the production of an image–no matter the substance–than the celebration of real citizenship. That they would do so for a news network that draws very meagre ratings makes it all the more puzzling.

More importantly, how in the world could the CIC’s senior communications staff (and SunTV producers, for that matter) not have known that this would blow back, making them look either stupid or manipulative? The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which oversees emergency response in the United States, did almost the exact same thing several years ago during the California wild fires and got called out for its efforts in the national media. Either the CIC’s communication strategists didn’t know about the FEMA case or they chose to ignore it. Beyond the unethical nature of the behaviour, neither ignorance or bliss is an acceptable defense when you’re paid to act like a professional.

The Conservative government already has a reputation for relentless information management. Events like the fake oath-swearing ceremony irritate and agitate the national media, with whom the Tories already have strained relations, not to mention the Twitterati who kept the event trending for most of today. More importantly, events like this one reinforce in the minds of citizens–especially non-supporters–that this is a government for whom spin control has become the norm in communicative practice. While it’s unlikely to have any kind of long-term effects on its own, this event now joins others (and here) in the growing case file of Tory propaganda.

2 Comments

Filed under Political Communication, Public Relations

The Janus-Face of the Conservative Government and New Technology: Digital Democracy and the Information State

Two recent stories about the Conservative government’s approach to digital media are worthy of mention and reflection.

Story 1: The federal government wants to be your Facebook friend and connect with you on Twitter. As Treasury Board president and power Tweeter Tony Clement argues, “To use social media, to speak directly to people, to our constituents, to citizens, to communicate rapidly and directly with our employees and the Canadian public is a challenge, but it is big occasion to promote the conversation between citizens and the Canadian government.”

Canadians are spending more of their time online: here we swap recipes, upload pictures, plan parties, gossip, and, yes, even talk about politics and policy. The idea of the federal government connecting in the social mediascape with Canadians seems both legitimate and progressive because it potentially promotes greater transparency and accountability, and invites more Canadians to talk back to their government. As open government advocates argue, there’s no question social technologies can be used in democratically progressive ways, and may help enhance the quality of civic discourse and mitigate the governance gap between politicians and citizens.

Story 2: In a series of legislative moves relating to overhauling the Criminal Code (Bills C-50, C-51, C-52), the Conservative government will require Internet Service Providers to hand over personal information about Canadians to the police without warrant, to retool their networks in ways that enables live monitoring of consumer online activities, and to assist police in the testing of online surveillance capabilities. Despite protest from ordinary Canadians and advocacy groups, lawyers, provincial privacy watchdogs, as well as the federal government’s own appointed privacy and surveillance advocate, Jennifer Stoddart, the Conservatives refuse to even talk about (let alone consider) measures or modifications that would smooth out the most egregious aspects of the legislation.

[On the Conservative’s new copyright legislation (Bill C-11), see my colleague Dwayne Winseck’s recent column in the Globe & Mail. It raises numerous critical observations which point to interesting connections between these areas of legislation and their implications for digital media, surveillance and privacy.]

These stories are illuminating in their own right but far more interesting when taken together because they reveal the Janus-faced nature of digital media as well as government policy as it relates to new technology. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. With two faces looking in opposite directions, he was at once peering into the past while gazing to the future.

So much public discourse about digital technology reflects the belief–widely shared by academics, journalists, open government advocates, and politicians like Minister Clement (at least publicly)–that given enough connectivity and devices, democracy is inevitable and will flourish. It’s hard not to be taken in by the seductive nature of this claim; indeed there is a case to be made for the relationship between access, information flow and democratization.

At the same time, we can’t consider the democratic potential of digital media without addressing questions of governance and regulation. If we assume that the Internet will only function in the service of democracy, we not only risk operating with what Evgeny Morozov calls a “voluntary intellectual handicap”, we also run the risk undermining our own attempts to create a more robust polity and democracy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Social Media, Surveillance, Technology