Playing politics with social media

Research and innovation
Faculty of Arts

By Laura Eggertson

Writer, Freelance

Elizabeth Dubois
Photo: Valérie Charbonneau
Elizabeth Dubois probes the changing face of public discourse in an era where tweets can alter lives.

Elizabeth Dubois was working as a communications assistant for an MP on Parliament Hill when she opened one of the politician’s social media accounts to discover a message asking for a picture of her boss’s feet.

It was 2009. At the time, Twitter was only three years old, and Facebook had just begun to be used as a political medium to push messages. Political staffers like Dubois had no practices for dealing with online harassment or threats and were crafting policy on the fly.

Dealing with the off-kilter picture request and developing policy at the intersection of politics and social media made her realize how the values and risks of using social media were poorly understood. The experiences prompted her to enrol in graduate school to delve into the political uses of digital media.

“There were no guidelines and no social norms at the time,” says Dubois, now a professor in the Department of Communication in the Faculty of Arts. “That complete lack of information made me want to know more about how all this works.”

Her timing could not have been better. In an era where presidential tweets alter lives, robocalls influence elections, and connectedness is critical for health, employment and education, Dubois’ research examines how digital tools help politicians, journalists, activists and citizens learn about politics, change opinions and alter perspectives.

Dubois recently released Citizenship in a Connected Canada with co-editor Florian Martin-Bariteau of the Faculty of Law. Published by the University of Ottawa Press, the book is a research and policy agenda born out of a 2017 Connected Canada conference highlighting data and data gaps in Canadians’ digital media use. It includes chapters about barriers to access and ways to decolonize digital space to enhance participation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of access and participation, says Dubois. “You don’t have any other option than to go online to apply for CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) or scan a QR code to get a drink or a meal, or to figure out where COVID hotspots are, or to deliver groceries,” she explains.

To better understand political uses of digital media, Dubois co-led the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge in the fall of 2019. As part of this $1.2-million project, data was shared with 18 research teams across the country. Online harassment of candidates and journalists covering the 2019 federal election were among the research teams’ subjects.

Dubois is currently investigating the intimidation Canadian political journalists experienced. Although her results are preliminary, she found that women received more toxic, negative comments than men, with sexism and homophobia being directed at particular journalists. Dubois and her graduate students are also developing a machine-learning process to identify and categorize types of harassment.

One of the researcher’s goals is to demonstrate the expansion of journalists’ roles via social media. She will make recommendations concerning best practices on coping with harassment for journalists and social media companies like Twitter.

“We need to understand that journalists have this new element to their job,” says Dubois. Her concern? When journalists decide to stop posting content in the face of abuse, diverse voices are inevitably silenced.