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Is social media really the new public square?

By Georgia Evans

Every year CIRA commissions an annual survey exploring how Canadians use the internet and publishes the insights in a new edition of Canada’s Internet Factbook. This year, CIRA is publishing a series of blog posts based on the findings of the 2023 Canada’s Internet Factbook survey. The blog that follows below is the final of four in the series.

There’s a popular idea that social media has become the new public square, the digital version of the agora, the public space where the citizens of ancient Greece gathered to discuss and debate new ideas, current events, politics and form public opinion. But is this really the case? New CIRA data challenges this notion—showing the extent to which Canadians get their news from social media and participate in politics online. 

The idea that social media is the new public square is often advanced by the founders and CEOs of these large platforms. However, unlike the agora, which was a public space, most social media platforms are for-profit corporations. In March 2022, just a few months before he agreed to buy the company formerly known as Twitter for $44 billion, Elon Musk tweeted that “Twitter serves as the de facto public town square” and that “failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”   

He wasn’t the first to use the metaphor in the context of social media, but there’s no doubt it’s an appealing one: a free digital platform accessible by all that enables members of an informed public to learn about current events, share and discuss their ideas and opinions freely with others and debate the big political and cultural questions of our time.  

Unfortunately, for reasons that are familiar to most of us by now, social platforms rarely live up to these kinds of lofty ideals. New research from CIRA shows that while Canadians continue to use social platforms extensively—48 per cent of us say it’s one of the top five ways we spend time online—we know that social media is rife with harassment and toxicity. The jury is still out on whether social media is truly the public square where Canadians come to form public opinion on politics and other current events.  

Facebook still dominates the social media space in Canada with 68 per cent of survey respondents reporting that they use it. Thirty-four per cent of Canadians also identified Facebook as one of several methods they usually use to access news online. However, that’s still considerably less than those who say they use Google to search for news stories (48 per cent) and those who visit specific news or media sites to get their news fix (47 per cent). Just 15 per cent of Canadians identify Twitter as a top source of information about current events. 

When asked which way they most often access news online, the largest share of Canadians (30 per cent) said they rely on specific news and media sites. While this method of sourcing news online represents the largest share in the 2023 Factbook survey, it has dropped by 11 percentage points since 2019, when 41 per cent of those surveyed said this was their go-to method. Google searches about news event (19 per cent) and Facebook (14 per cent) are ranked second and third as the ways Canadians most often access news online. 

Let’s go back to the idea of the social media town square for a moment. The data shows that Canadians still value traditional news sources and tend to choose them over social media platforms for getting up-to-date information about what’s going on in the world. But what about that utopian public forum for debate championed by folks in Silicon Valley? Is there any evidence to suggest that Canadians are flocking to Twitter and other social platforms to participate in public debates about the political and social topics they’re passionate about?   

While some are using social platforms for this purpose, they represent a small minority. About one in six Canadians (17 per cent) say they use social media or messaging apps to learn about (16 per cent) or support (6 per cent) political movements or networks.  

One possible reason for the reluctance of Canadians to engage with their fellow citizens on social media is their concern about the kind of treatment they may receive from them. Almost a third (31 per cent) of Canadians say they have been reluctant to use social media or participate in an online discussion because of fears of online harassment. Women are more likely than men to feel reluctant about this kind of participation.   

When it comes to social media, current data shows Canadians remain ambivalent. While many of us turn to Facebook, Twitter and other social media apps as one way of staying up to speed on current events, the online information and engagement landscape remains fractured. And as of now, that means there’s no single social platform that can lay claim to being our de facto digital public square. 

About the author
Georgia Evans

Georgia is a Policy & Advocacy Analyst at CIRA and is very passionate about internet governance and digital policy.