Politics·Analysis

Twitter's time in Canadian politics began with an apology — and then it got worse

Whenever and however the Twitter era comes to an end, its impact on Canadian politics will have been great — if not entirely good.

A statement in the House of Commons in 2009 foretold what was to come

Elon Musk arrives at the Baron Investment Conference at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on Nov. 4. The Twitter owner's highly unorthodox management style has many observers claiming the platform is on its last legs. (The Associated Press)

This is an excerpt from Minority Report, a weekly newsletter on federal politics. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

The first reference to "tweeting" in the House of Commons came during an apology.

Shortly after question period on the afternoon of Oct. 20, 2009, then-Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh stood on a point of order.

"I wish to inform you and the House that I inadvertently tweeted about matters that I ought not to have tweeted about, that is, the in-camera proceedings of the defence committee," Dosanjh told the Speaker. "That was an error on my part and that entry will be deleted at the earliest possible opportunity, which is right after I get out of here."

This, apparently, was before MPs realized they could have their staff manage their Twitter accounts.

Ujjal Dosanjh in the House of Commons. The then-Liberal MP apologized to the House in 2009 for tweeting out details of in-camera committee proceedings. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"I thank the honourable member," responded Peter Milliken, Speaker at the time. "I assume that 'tweeting' means it went on Twitter."

Dosanjh's point of order marked the arrival in Canada of a social media platform that promoted both dialogue and excess — a tool that both enriched debate and created new ways to do things we would later regret.

Thirteen years later, Twitter seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse. Even if it carries on in some shape or form, its time as one of the predominant forums in public life may be nearing an end. Many users have already withdrawn from the platform or reduced their presence.

Whenever and however the Twitter era comes to an end, its impact on Canadian politics will have been great — but not entirely good.

Small audience, big impact

There is a decent chance that you're not a regular user of Twitter. Most Canadians aren't. But the platform has an outsized impact on the political life of this country because most Canadian politicians, journalists, pundits, political strategists, pollsters, lobbyists and partisans do use Twitter — along with a significant number of academics, policy wonks and subject matter experts.

Canada is hardly the only country with this dynamic, of course. Consider, for instance, the United States — Twitter played an integral role in Donald Trump's rise.

Nothing so seismic has happened here (at least not yet), but the impact has not been small.

It also hasn't been all bad. It gave politicians a new way to communicate with voters, and it created a new way for voters to hold politicians to account. It facilitated the spread of news and information with incredible speed and breadth.

It elevated new and underrepresented voices and those voices enriched the wider dialogue. In certain ways, Twitter helped bring more nuance to the political debate. Think of every academic or historian who has used a Twitter thread to illuminate a complicated topic.

That, sadly, isn't all that might be said about Twitter's performance as a modern public square.

Amping up the extremes

As much as it has helped expose users to important information and valuable voices, it has also spread misinformation, disinformation, harassment and general nastiness. It prizes and rewards snap judgments, hot takes, outrage, condemnation, mockery, doomsaying and disagreement.

It sped up the news cycle to a dizzying degree. It elevates the most extreme opinions, offers ample opportunity for bad-faith actors and is a terrible proxy for actual public opinion.

If previous media eras reduced politics to soundbites, Twitter reduced it even further — to hashtags. At times, the House of Commons seemed to be little more than a fancy studio for recording video clips to be pushed out on MPs' Twitter feeds.

For all of these reasons, it might be tempting to think Canadian politics would be better off without Twitter. But even if Twitter were to disappear tomorrow, there is no going back to a time before social media — just as there is no going back to a time before television or radio or newspapers.

If Twitter ceases to be a significant forum, some new platform (or platforms) will take its place. The era of social media is far from over.

There is something to be said for the argument that the problem with Twitter is not the platform itself but the way it is used, and the ways in which it is allowed to be used. In that sense, Twitter offers valuable lessons in how social media can work and how it can go wildly wrong.

Whether those lessons will be heeded is another matter entirely. The question of government regulation still looms on the horizon.

The indisputable truth is that, 13 years after Ujjal Dosanjh found a novel way to betray the confidence of in-camera committee discussions, everyone is still trying to figure out how to make the social media era work out for the best — or to at least minimize the harm it does.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now