Social media platforms have transformed how we produce, share and consume information. Positively, they have enabled unprecedented freedom of speech and new forms of political expression and organization. However, they also have been used as a quite effective tool of public opinion manipulation and abuse – particularly during elections.
With that in mind, Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge was a project launched in 2019 with the purpose of examining the impacts of digital media on Canadian elections and its effects as a global phenomenon. The focus was to address main questions such as: How does digital media impact and shape federal election? How big a threat is disinformation for democracies? How are political parties using digital data to advertise? What is the impact of online harassment for politicians? A large dataset was collected from social media, online news, web, and survey data with the goal to map the digital ecosystem in order to support increased civic and digital literacy.
Dr. Elizabeth Dubois and Dr. Taylor Owen, with the funding from History Fund Grant of the Government of Canada, made this project possible and its first findings from the 2019 federal election were published in a report available for download in the project’s website. This report is the result of a collaborative effort that brought together academics from across Canada and abroad to research the impact of digital media on Canadian elections. You will find the initial results of 18 different research projects, which range in topic from online political advertising, to online harassment, to disinformation, and more.
Some core findings on this report bring to our attention the importance of producing these researches and further analysing the matter. For example, regarding personal data, by studying the extent to which voters were aware of how much data political parties collect through social media, they found that most respondents were unaware that parties collected data on Canadians’ religion, ethnicity, and political preferences. Even more concerning, knowing how much disinformation can cause damage, a study on how the source and presentation of the information affected voters’ perception of the reliability of data they saw online, the results showed that the source of the data (whether a trusted news organization or an ordinary citizen) made little difference to how reliable respondents considered a pre-election poll.
Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge team stands to the opinion that a more complete understanding of this complex digital ecosystem is required to build resilience to threats posed by increased integration of digital tools into democratic processes. More details on some events, held in February 2020 – Panel “Covering Elections in the Digital Age” and Symposium “Digital Media and the 2019 Federal Election, can be easily accessed in the project´s website.