They keep popping up on our feeds: images of protesters from countries around the world holding mass protests in response to a host of issues in their home countries. From corruption and economic woes, such as in Lebanon, Chile, Ecuador, and Haiti; to political reform, like in Russia and Iraq; or political independence, such as the protests in Hong Kong and Spain; and, of course, the larger global protests regarding climate change and the women’s movement. If you are overwhelmed by what was just listed, the total number of protests and protesters around the world are even more staggering. Truly, we have entered a new age of mass protest and global upheaval.
Yet, while the normalcy of protesting is increasing and gaining popularity, the overall global trend of freedom and democracy is – and has been for the last 13 years – declining, with 113 countries seeing a net decline in their level of freedom since 2006, as set out by Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that does research on freedom and democracy. This phenomenon is called “democratic backsliding,” and even the most mature and established democracies are experiencing this trend. One only needs to look at the declining political rights and civil liberties in the United States as proof of this trend, such as the administration’s attempt to limit religious freedom through the “Muslim ban”, and the numerous attempts at limiting freedoms and rights for LGBTQ+ citizens. In fact, even in countries that are considered to be democratic, Amnesty International has reported that responses to protests have led to human rights violations.
The downward trend of democratic backsliding has many roots and influences that have pushed the world to what we see now. However, one of the most influential and worrying aspects of democratic backsliding is the role that social media plays in amplifying the problem. Recently, Freedom House released a report that warned that social media is, “now tilting dangerously toward illiberalism.” In the report, government surveillance, censorship, and online meddling were just some of the biggest threats that are linked to social media. Even in Canada, during our most recent election, there were reports warning that Russia might try to interfere in our elections because of Russian interest in the arctic.
The enormous issues of privacy and security online, however, do not stand alone. A darker undertone to social media – and online media in general – is the problem of a loss of truth and authenticity. Of course, anonymity online has always given people the ability to hide and voice their marred opinions. However, now, with the growing complexity of online algorithms, the abundance of echo chambers, and the increase of fake news, the online sphere has become incredibly toxic.
All this is to say that lies and superficiality are growing in tandem with the wider issues of media manipulation by the state and the suppression of certain opinions and viewpoints. In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s participation in the climate strike in Montreal and his meeting with climate activist Greta Thunberg are just two examples of politicians using pressing issues and protests to get photo-ops and flattering videos of themselves seemingly invested in these serious issues to score political points with voters. The rise of the internet has brought with it a new form of image management, one that politicians are intent on controlling.
Yet, while the world may seem increasingly to be dark, fake, and irredeemable , citizens have the duty and ability to maintain and strengthen their democracies and freedoms through action. Action like the protests happening around the world that are calling for equality, liberty, and prosperity. Here in Canada, we need to wake up from our apathetic and comfortable slumber. We must stay vigilant in order to guard our democracy against the threats that are growing around the world.