Students tackle populism and the future of democracy

It’s a rare thing to find students from the faculties of Engineering, Environment, Science, Mathematics, and Arts in a fourth-year seminar course together. That’s what happened this past winter term when the Faculty of Arts launched a multidisciplinary program for senior undergraduates to collaboratively address complex globalized problems.

Student pins photos of people to a map of the worldThe Global Engagement Seminar is a pilot program generously supported by the Jarislowsky Foundation with the goal to ensure students from any discipline graduate as adaptable thinkers able to tackle the big challenges of the 21st century.

The inaugural course theme was “Global Populism and Democratic Futures,” with a curriculum developed and delivered by program director, Jasmin Habib, professor of political science, and the 2018 Jarislowsky Fellow, Henry Giroux, cultural critic and professor at McMaster University. The 18 students — who had to apply to join the seminar — critically examined the global rise of populism and its implications for democratic engagement.

Culminating with the Global Populism & Democratic Futures Summit, a gathering of academics, practitioners, dignitaries, and community members held at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, the students presented their project findings. Topics included meaningful civic participation in the digital era; cultural belonging in Canada amid rising populist attitudes toward immigrants; greater sexual equality on campus; the effects of neoliberalism on democracy; and, responses to anti-science movements.

All the student presentations are available in both video and transcript formats on the Global Engagement website. Here, we share excerpts from one group.

You Won’t Believe What Social Media is Doing to Your Democracy

Don Tu, Faculty of Engineering

Don Tu“For democracy to work, people need to have access to those public spaces that guarantee the rights of free speech, dissent, and critical dialogue.”—Don Tu introducing the presentation with a quote from the students’ mentor and the 2018 Jarislowsky Fellow, Henry Giroux

“Who is finding their voices on social media, and who has the power to silence those voices? Who has social media empowered, and how has it changed the fabric of our democracy? These are the questions that our team has explored.”

Savannah Voll, Faculty of Arts

Savannah Voll

“Facebook can be used as a medium both to undermine the principles of democracy, and to spread populist ideas. Political propaganda has always had this capacity, but the introduction of Facebook has really given strategists an unprecedented reach and sway.

“In my research, I found that Facebook has been used for five significant tools that are somewhat nefarious to gain political support.

“We can take steps to diminish the effects of these tools, and I would propose three. The first one is to be aware of this. It’s important to know that followership numbers can be misrepresented, and political ads on Facebook that you’re seeing are likely targeted specifically towards you. The second is to knowingly broaden your scope of understanding. Look into conflicting ideas and make friends with people who are different from you. And third, perhaps most important, is to go beyond Facebook for your politics and your news stories.”

Robyn Peers, Faculty of Arts

Robyn Peers

“Twitter has functioned as a transformative medium in a democratic context.

“Given the fact that Twitter has over 500 million tweets now per day, by their over 330 million active monthly users, this certainly gives many the impression that it is facilitating democracy on an international scale between and within societies.

“However, this becomes much more complicated when we start to look at the fact that users can block other users on Twitter. Again, Donald Trump has been notorious for this, blocking a variety of dissenting individuals and groups, including those advocating for the rights of veterans, LGBTQ plus activists, as well as trolls who mock him online. And blocking allows individuals to not only prevent others from interacting with them, but also to block them from seeing any of the content they post. When we think of democratic politicians tweeting online, this becomes much more problematic.”

Samir Reynolds, Faculty of Environment  

Samir Reynolds“YouTube is a huge site. It’s the most popular video viewing site in the world with over a billion hours of video watched every day, and has a global reach with over 70 languages. The ease of creating videos allows people who would typically be passive consumers of media to become active creators of media. It allows you, anyone, to create a video and have a reach around the world.

“Many users of the site firmly believe that the comments section helps facilitate discussion and discourse. If you ever scroll through YouTube comments though, you may find this is not really the case, especially now with the practice known as flaming — comments that are deliberately offensive and quite often very vulgar and profane. This practice essentially lowers the level of discourse, which is not a good thing.”

Logan Miller, Faculty of Environment

Logan Miller“Reddit may be the least well known of the four social media sites that we analyzed. It is by no means small. Last year it was the fourth most visited website within North America.

“Things that are up-voted float to the top, and things that are down-voted float to the bottom. Say if I’m on the Toronto Blue Jays sub-Reddit, a completely random example, this is great, because I always have relative news, stats, my favorite players. But if I’m on a political discussion, this can be very dangerous, it can be very prone to becoming an echo chamber.”

“While individuals can speak and be heard like never before, social media is also giving companies an unprecedented insight into how we think, and allowing governments and corporations an incredible amount of power to influence us and control how we act.

“Ultimately, it's up to us, users of social media, to be aware of the impact of our social media usage. And we need to use it to uphold those ideals of free speech, dissent, and critical dialogue.” — Don Tu concluding the presentation

Attendees from the Global Engagement Summit

The inaugural Global Engagement Seminar was composed of 18 students from five of Waterloo’s six faculties. In this photo, most of the class is joined by associate deans from Engineering and Math, respectively, Peter Douglas and Raouf Boutaba (back row, left) who serve on the program’s Steering Committee; Eve Beauchamp, Executive Director of the Jarislowsky Foundation beside former Senator Landon Pearson (middle row, left) who are Advisory Council members; program director Jasmin Habib (back row, left of centre), and program coordinator, Dani Marcheva, MA Global Governance (left of Prof. Habib), and Dean of Arts, Doug Peers (front row, right) —all of whom attended the Summit.