Community·Point of View

Dal students share opinions about Digital Democracy

With the second Stanfield Conversation set for Thursday, Oct. 20 at Dalhousie University. We asked young minds at Dal to answer a few questions in an age of “Digital Democracy.”

Stanfield Conversation speaker series to be held at Dalhousie University on Thursday

Six university students, dressed casually, walking in front of one of the older buildings on campus.
Dalhousie students, from left, Hannah Meagher, Laura Saad, Bashar AlSarraf, Austin Lees, Teddy Elphick and Hannah S. Beaulieu offer their opinions on "Digital Democracy" leading up to Stanfield Conversation speaker series on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. (Robert Short / CBC)
Dalhousie University's Stanfield Conversations: Talking Democracy is a speaker series that brings together distinguished thinkers to discuss the issues facing democracy. It focuses on critical challenges to democracy, examining imaginative and inspiring responses to them.

Last fall, the discussion of "Democracy on Edge" laid the foundation for future Stanfield Conversations. The series continues with the second Stanfield Conversation on "Technology, Media Fragmentation, and the Crisis of Democracy in America." 

Within weeks of the U.S. mid-term elections and other global issues, the topic is a timely one, providing an opportunity to engage in debates concerning the repercussions of new media, social media and technology-enabled subversive practices for democratic politics.

Talking Digital Democracy: Join Stanfield Conversation at Dal on Oct. 20

You can join the conversation on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. in the McInnes Room of the Dalhousie Student Union Building, 6136 University Ave., Halifax. RSVP here to participate in this event either in-person or virtually via live stream.

Leading up to Thursday's discussion, we asked current students at Dalhousie University to answer a few questions in an age of "Digital Democracy."

Young male student, black hair and black glasses where a white shirt and grey sweater
Bashar AlSarraf is a Dalhousie University Master of Arts in Political Science candidate. (Greg Guy / CBC)
BASHAR ALSHARRAF is a Master of Arts in Political Science candidate. His Master's Thesis explores the potential for multi-level governance in Canada, specifically through an examination of the COVID-19 policy responses across different municipalities. He hopes to continue with a PhD after completing his Master's degree. 

Q. In what way do you think social media shapes the way you think about the world?
A. "Obviously what gets reported in social media shapes a lot of what people talk about and think about. And in this age, we have new developments like influencers. They have a great responsibility for what they choose to solicit.  Because we have a lot of kids that look up to them and think like them and subscribe to them."

Q. Are there ways in which social media is being manipulated politically? Should it be better regulated? 
 "You look at elections from the U.S. with Russian interference, you look at things like Cambridge Analytica, which has gotten a lot of reception. There are several ways social media is being manipulated. For example, people don't know that their information is being sold online to certain companies to further target them through ads and other software. You look at things like Twitter, they have a certain algorithm which promotes sensational takes, so you have to be careful with how you interpret these things that happen on social media."

"Social media has been used by companies, by individuals, by governments to spread propaganda toward a certain agenda, so we have to be mindful of that. It's not only a question of regulation, it really is a question of social media literacy. We have a lot of people who grew up in this virtual environment and we also have a lot of people who are adapting to this environment. Regulation is not keeping up with the rate of development of technology."

Young man with black hair wearing a beige sweater and standing on a university campus.
Austin Lees is a graduate student at Dalhousie University. His research focuses on Canadian political parties and elections. (Greg Guy / CBC)
AUSTIN LEES is a graduate student at Dalhousie University whose research focuses on Canadian political parties and elections. Austin is a co-author of a tentative conference paper for the Canadian Journal of Political Science for spring 2023 regarding the role of provincial independent boundaries commissions in New Brunswick.

Q. For what purpose do you use social media?
A. "I use social media to gain information about the events going on around me, to gain information about potential political events and political events that are unfolding, and to stay in touch with my community. I use my social media primarily to engage with politics, because I think I am more so one of those 'politics people' that we hear about. I think it boosts my engagement because I can gain insight about questions I have throughout the day."

Q. In what way do you think social media shapes the way you think about the world?
A. "I would say that social media does challenge the way I see the world in a way, because I am getting articles that I would not typically see in my Facebook feed for example, or my Twitter feed, that somebody else might share and it would make me really question what's going on around me. I might see an article from the United States say in some random state, that I may not see in my Facebook feed, for example."

Female university student with long brown hair, smiling wearing a pink, black and white sweater.
Hannah Meagher is a second year Dalhousie student studying Law, Justice and Society. (Greg Guy / CBC)
HANNAH MEAGHER is a second year Dal student pursuing a major in Law, Justice and Society. She is on the executive of the Political Science Society and a member of the youth advisory board of Transforming Military Culture.

Q. Are there ways that social media is being manipulated politically?
 "I definitely do agree that social media is being used to manipulate political agendas. Primarily, you saw that in the U.S. especially with Donald Trump's election in 2016." 

"It's one thing to use advertisements in a way to increase your votes for elections, that's okay to a certain extent, but it's another thing when parties try to get people to believe things about the opposing parties that aren't necessarily true. Most of the public may not be able to tell what's right and what's wrong. What's true and what's not true. I definitely believe that is an issue."

Young female university student with one side of her hair lime green and the other black wearing white-framed glasses with pink lenses and beaded earrings and a black shirt.
Hannah S. Beaulieu is a fourth-year Dalhousie student studying history and political science. (Greg Guy / CBC)
HANNAH S. BEAULIEU is a fourth-year Dalhousie student pursuing a combined honours degree in History and Political Science, minoring in Indigenous Studies. She is currently working with Natural Resources Canada as a co-investigator in a cumulative effects assessment in the Pitu'paq estuary in Cape Breton. 

Q. In what way do you think social media shapes the way you think about the world?
A. "I think social media impacts the way that I think about the world by being able to see so many thoughts and opinions. I think the accessibility that social media has, especially now, allows us to engage in conversations around the world. We can look for any topic, I mean, Google is at our fingertips, literally anything. I am a chronic Google-er, so I will just search anything that comes to mind. And I think having that very immense access to information is not only super helpful in completing my studies and research, but also for knowing what's going on in the world."

Q. Are there ways in which social media is being manipulated politically? 
A. "I think social media definitely has had its moments of being manipulated politically. I think the essence of the way algorithms work, essentially show us content that we consume and has a lot of limitations in a sense we won't necessarily come across opposing political ideologies."

Young male with curly brown hair smiling wearing a green sweater and white collared shirt.
Teddy Elphick is a fifth-year Dal student pursuing a degree in political science and gender and women's studies. (Greg Guy / CBC)
TEDDY ELPHICK is a fifth-year student pursuing a degree in Political Science, Gender and Women's Studies at Dalhousie. He is president of DalOUT, Dalhousie's 2SLGBTQ+ Student Society, and is a member of several student committees, all focusing on improving the lives of queer students. 

Q. In what way do you think social media shapes the way you think about the world?
A. "I feel like social media shaped me. I have been on social media since a very young age. I have been consuming content that is socially and politically engaged for quite a long time. I feel it has given me a larger world view, although, at the same time, it's also made me a little bit of a pessimist, because I have been engaging with so much content around social and political issues. And the nature of those issues can often be negative, so engaging with them can take a lot out of me personally. But overall I feel I have gained a larger world view."

Q. Do you use social media to engage politically?
A. "Absolutely. Even if I wanted to not engage in social media politically, just by nature of being a political science student, and someone who is interested in political science, it is going to come up (in my feed). It is based on the way algorithms work on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. If I am engaging with that content, it is going to come up naturally."

Young female student with long black hair smiling and wearing a wine-coloured sweatshirt.
Laura Saad is a second-year Dal student pursuing a combined honours degree in political science and philosophy. (Greg Guy / CBC)
LAURA SAAD is a second-year student pursuing a combined honours degree in Political Science and Philosophy. She is a member of the Action Now Atlantic Youth Advocacy Network and an executive team member of the Dalhousie Arts & Social Sciences, Political Science, and Philosophy societies. She is also recruitment and education chair for Dalhousie Global Brigades.

Q. Are there ways in which social media is being manipulated politically? 
 "I feel social media can definitely be used politically. I think even one of the managers of Facebook tested it to see if they could get people to vote in the mid-term elections by using social media, and it worked."

"You can definitely see it in examples of past elections in the United States and in Brazil. Even after the election of Biden a couple of years ago, with the storming the Capitol, I definitely feel like social media played a role in inspiring people to participate in that riot."

A poster for the speaker series Digital Democracy - black fists raised on an orange background.
(Dalhousie University)