5 political memes on my Facebook feed - and how they embody Canadians' views on democracy

Recently, the Strengthening Canadian Democracy Project conducted a survey on how Canadians feel about our own democratic values and trends. But sometimes the numbers don’t tell the whole story. So I wanted to see - how does my own Facebook feed show off these trends?

By Julia Melesko, Research Assistant
November 08, 2019

I love using social media - and so do other Canadians.

According to Adweek, Canadians are the most active Facebook users in the entire world: 14 million of us have an account, and more than 11 million of us log in every single day.

So you probably start your daily routine the same way I do, by picking up my smartphone and checking my notifications. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram are familiar friends; they keep me updated on the news and my family from back home. I can quickly read Vancouver’s traffic updates, and see friends’ baby pictures all on the same timeline.

But even I, a self-proclaimed social media fanatic, can understand these spaces we spend so much time on can have some serious consequences (and opportunities) for our democracy and democratic values.

After doing some work on statistics for the SFU Centre for Dialogue’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Project, I was particularly interested in the stats about social media. More so, I was interested in how I could apply these to my own Facebook feed. Am I seeing the same things everyone else is seeing, but on a smaller scale?

Canadians believe that social media and technology make us more polarized (57 per cent of those surveyed) and less accepting of others that have different viewpoints than us (43 per cent).

Canadians are very concerned about how social media divides us rather than pulling us together into a larger, national community, demonstrating the democratic downside of social media applications. 

As I scrolled through my own Facebook feed, polarization was rampant. At the date of writing this blog post, the Canadian Federal Election’s English language debate had just occurred, and friends and family were posting like crazy. This meme (left) uses a screen-cap from the cult-classic movie Mean Girls. The movie itself isn’t political, but a friend used it to forward her own political viewpoint for the federal election, and the comment section was difficult to get through. Argumentative and tough, my friend would not back down on her political views, and berated others that disagreed with her.

I saw this again in bizarrely specific memes, as well. This second meme (right), depicts Bernie Sander’s apparent love of US Department store chain Kohl’s, which he recently discussed with a supporter at one of his rallies. Even though it seemed relatively simple and comedic, underneath a whole bunch of my friends were debating Senator Sanders’ bid for American Democratic Presidential nominee in a heated, negative way.

In these ways, I can see exactly where Canadians’ worries come from. None of my friends are really listening to each other in these comment sections. How is participating in these disagreements helping us learn from each other?

Yet, 55 per cent of Canadians feel that technology makes people more willing to engage in political debates, and that it increases the ability for Canadians to have a meaningful voice in the political process (60 per cent).

Even with these concerns and the name-calling within the comment sections of Facebook, Canadians are still positive about how social media can contribute to democracy. I see this all over my feed as well. A quick scroll through my feed again shows that memes are also allowing for connection, rather than creating polarization.

This meme in particular (left), which is a picture of Andrew Scheer and Maxine Bernier, compares them to an episode of the cartoon Spiderman, where he meets his doppelganger. I love this particular image because everyone in my friends list who commented on it was connecting over a shared love of this meme format (and Spiderman himself). Two of my friends actually had a very lively debate over the policies of the two leaders in the picture, and nobody got heated or angry. Instead, it was a meaningful conversation about relevant policies.

A few more memes on my Facebook feed today looked the same sort of way.

One of my friends from the political science department shared this meme (left) of the ideological makeup of sauces. Okay, this might not be particularly meaningful, but it did create some interesting conversation in the comments about the differences between left and right on the political scale in Canada - just in the realm of sauces, rather than political figures or parties. By taking the party out of the ideology debate, it created a more nuanced conversation about our definitions of left, right, authoritarian, and libertarian.

One final post I saw today is a re-post of a political cartoon from a newspaper. It was posted by my aunt, who lives in Hawaii but has been vocal about contributing to the vote here through mail-in ballot.

This post reminds us that people have been using images in media to talk about politics for a very long time. This isn’t something that was created at the onset of social media. We have been, as Canadians, creating spaces within our everyday media consumption for political discussion for as long as media has existed.

So what can you see in your own Facebook feed?

The ideas that Canadians have about their democratic values can be evaluated right in front of us on an individual scale.

I recommend this: the next time you are on Facebook, take a look at the types of things your friends, or the groups you are a part of, post. Do the images or texts you see on your feed contribute to a safe and open democratic community? And if not - if you see polarization and negativity - what can you do about it?

Comment, like, and use your social media power to share positivity and nuanced conversation. We know that Canadians have seen both sides: polarization online and safe, democratic spaces. How can we make sure that the positive side is the one we promote?