| Marketing democracy

Social media encourage perilous illiteracy and innumeracy

Can Canadians read? Not really: according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), as of 2003, 48 per cent of Canadians are functionally illiterate, and another 35 per cent met only “the minimum skill level for successful participation in society.”

Can Canadians count? Again, not really: according to HRSDC, as of 2003, 56 per cent of Canadians lacked the math skills to “function…well in Canadian society,” and another thirty per cent met only the minimum level of numeracy associated with successful participation in society.

If the differences in the literacy statistics between 1994 and 2003 indicate a trend, we’re doing nothing to fix the situation. In fact, the situation has become worse. There was a decline in the number of people who have “strong literacy skills” and “strategies for dealing with complex materials.” It seems reason and another roughly thirty per cent can just barely read or count their way out of a paper bag. That leaves maybe about twenty percent of our population with sufficient literacy and numeracy to understand what the hell is going on in our country.

Compare this with voter turnout in federal elections. According to Elections Canada, in the past four polls (about ten years), voter turnout has hovered around sixty per cent. This should sound blaring alarm bells. At best, about forty per cent of voters have little to no ability to understand the election platforms and financial plans they voted for. What really worries me is the following: if so many voters can’t do their own homework, what makes them decide how to vote?
A book I recently read springs to mind: Chris Hedges’s Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. It’s nicely summed up by Barnum and Bailey’s Circus’s exhortation to pay to “come see the Egress!” I’d like to focus on the rise and role of social media – blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, et cetera – in our political discourse.

Lauded by their proponents for the ability to broadcast “information” to huge audiences, social media are undoubtedly an important vehicle for “the triumph of spectacle.” The masses are easily fed ridiculously decontextualized and often bizarre interpretations of current events, rhetoric, and personal ideology. Risking poor analysis, I’ll venture that if the functionally illiterate majority of the population wanted to pretend that it wasn’t, it might turn to “information” sources that allow it to propagate its delusion of literacy.

Enter social media: small, easily-digested, low-complexity text. Popular consumption of social media necessarily comes from the quasi-literate majority, those for whom they were designed. Combine this with the narcissism (and often megalomania) of most social media “authors,” and you have a recipe for disaster. Consider that more than a quarter of our population is in reading level two, and according to the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, “often do not recognize their limitations” – they can’t identify or dismiss tripe, nor demand better.

Using these superficial marketing media techniques as the primary vehicle for important news, or substantive discourse, is spectacle of the first degree. We need a truly informed population that consults meaningfully, and participates in an informed manner, not a population that fools itself into thinking it’s informed. This requires true literacy and numeracy, neither of which are promoted by social media.

Many pointed to Obama’s success as proof of the power of social media for awakening the bright forces of an informed electorate. The recently-concluded U.S. mid-term elections demonstrated what actually occurred in 2008. Identical social media strategies employed by Obama have been put to work against his regime. The content of the messaging was different, but the support elicited was essentially the same: the quasi-literate. Real movements require real intellectual foundations, which in turn, requires substantive communication.