The Right Side of History

 In Blog, Neil Andersen

In November, 2018, Jesse—’CBC tech columnist’—Hirsh appeared in his regular time slot on the Metro Morning radio show to comment on Facebook’s long list of ethical missteps, among them failing to protect users’ private information from hacks and for selling users’ data without consent. The first is an example of compromising users’ data via ineptitude; the second is an example of compromising it via greed. Hear it here.

Business Insider catalogued Facebook’s troubled year, citing dozens of ethics violations. According to Business Insider:

Facebook’s failure to prevent vitriolic posts contributed to human rights violations and violence in Syria, Myanmar, Philippines and Nigeria.

Facebook’s platform has been claimed to influence elections in England, Brazil, Canada and the US.

Facebook has admitted to privacy breaches of at least 100 million users in 2018.

At the end of his commentary, Mr. Hirsh called out the CBC senior management for continuing to promote—via its writers’ and announcers’ ‘follow-us-on-Facebook’ prompts—Facebook use when it was demonstrably unhealthy for Canada’s democracy.

“Why does CBC continue to engage in commercial relationships with Facebook now that it’s clear to us that Facebook is a threat to democracy, and CBC as a public broadcaster should be strengthening democracy?”

The CBC veered from its normal practice of posting transcripts of Mr. Hirsh’s tech columns for that conversation, citing journalistic errors in his comments.

Mr. Hirsh subsequently spoke with Jesse Brown on Canadaland, where they discussed the Metro Morning commentary, its aftermath and implications. Hear it here.

Mr. Hirsh said that he has been troubled by Facebook’s—and the CBC’s—practices for a long time. He said that he could no longer tolerate the duplicity he saw at the CBC, where a broadcaster that claimed to cherish Canadian values was failing to call out and reject a company that was threatening them. He said that he wants to be on the right side of history.

‘The right side of history’ is a very useful phrase. So much that is problematic about current events is that they are short-sighted; short-term gains are privileged over long-term goals. Egerton Ryerson was a proponent and designer of residential schools, resulting in the suffering and deaths of Indigenous children. Mackenzie King’s government turned the MS St. Louis away, resulting in the deaths of most of its Jewish passengers. Stephen Harper’s government muzzled scientists who were trying to warn Canadians about climate change. None have fallen on the right side of history.

History is long-term and being on its right side is often risky, but can result in a better world.  In an information-rich environment—where we record almost everything—history is more important—and inescapable—than ever. So Mr. Hirsh risked his Metro Morning gig because he wanted to be on the right side of history.

But what of the CBC? Which side of history is it falling on? If it fails to support Canadians by warning them of Facebook’s dangers, is it fulfilling its mandate? If it chooses to support corporate values over Canadian values, do we really need a tax-supported national broadcaster, or might we be just as well served—and just as vulnerable—with private broadcasters?

When teachers speak to students about bullying and other lapses in civil behaviour, they say, “If you see something, say something.” If CBC sees something but fails to say something, why do we need it?

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