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Hope on the horizon in 2013: On Harper, social media and #IdleNoMore

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I usually find myself in an optimistic mood on New Year's Day, and this year is no exception. But I think there's good reason to be hopeful about 2013 in Canada. The Idle No More movement has inspired the majority in Canada who are opposed to the Harper government; it has led to a global outpouring of solidarity; and, perhaps most importantly, it has brought to light the founding, core injustices of this settler-colonial country.

Creative and courageous activism has proved infectious, and Idle No More has forced its way in to the mainstream, provoking a widespread conversation long overdue about the situation facing the Indigenous Peoples of this land. 

The establishment media and the Harper government did their best to ignore it. As I noted three weeks ago, the CBC's flagship news broadcast turned a blind eye during the early days. But what's exciting and hopeful is that the sheer energy of the movement, aided by the use of social media, overcame the mainstream media's initial silence. This, for me, was reminiscent of what happened around Occupy Wall Street and even, to some extent, Tahrir Square in early 2011. 

With social media -- and a lot of persistence -- movements can now compel the big media outlets to cover their issues. Social media did not and can not, by any means, actually make those movements begin, but it did help to multiply their impacts once they got going. 

Love it or hate it, social media has become a crucial part of the modern agora -- it's a key place where the issues of the day are debated. (In fact, hating it is not really an option for public figures anymore; you kind of have to get in on the conversation.) 

With respect to Idle No More, Harper's government in Ottawa, true to form, has maintained a cold, cold silence. Faced with the hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, their response has been to dispatch the embarrassing Senator Brazeau to 'try to visit' (after publicly criticizing the hunger strike), and to send an insulting, disrespectful letter from the notoriously inept Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Duncan. 

Harper and the PMO have kept almost completely silent on the movement even as protests have gone global, maintaining a strict 'message discipline' and acting as if nothing out of the ordinary was taking place.

Of special interest is the clumsy and seemingly tone deaf use of Twitter by the Prime Minister's Office. Twitter -- with its open, public conversations, and its users' tendencies to use humour, wit and creativity -- goes against everything about the way the Harper government likes to communicate. It's not a natural fit for a prime minister like Harper, whose idea of 'dialogue' is that he uses a megaphone while wearing soundproof earplugs. 

So it is that, as a leader starved herself and as round dances swept the malls and squares of the country, Harper tweeted some bland government announcements, along with lighter material like a photo of Laureen holding a panda in China, an unoriginal Mayan Apocalypse joke and an exchange with one "Homer J. Simpson" about bacon. In fact, with over 700 official tweets from @PMHarper on record, good ol' Homer was the first "person" Harper had ever responded to. While thousands of Canadians tweeted at @PMHarper to meet with Chief Spence, Harper chose to ignore them in favour of a joking retort about bacon to a fictional cartoon character. 

Now, I concede that this may not be so much tone deaf as calculated provocation. After all, Harper and his government communicate with unrelenting cynicism. Every utterance, every sports or military related announcement, every press release and every tightly controlled media conference or photo-op aims only to convey a specific message to a specific targeted voter. 

The whole premise of Harper's government really appears to be that people are, and will remain, uninformed. And that, even if they are informed, they will fail to act, or at least they will only act on their fears. If you are not a targeted voter, Harper does not care, and he hopes and assumes you don't care too much, either.

In this relentless, hyper-partisan approach, there is almost not even a rhetorical nod to the idea of governing for all Canadians. And when caught in a lie -- like with the F-35 fiasco -- Harper and company just double-down, smear the messenger, admit no wrongdoing and invent euphemisms, talking of "resetting" the process but never conceding an inch to reality. 

I really think this deeply cynical approach can be disrupted by a big enough social movement. And #IdleNoMore is not going to go away quietly. 

Social media, coupled with the expansion of media democracy, is absolutely crucial to our social movements. Sooner or later, the power of the people aided by the creative use of social media we have available will defeat or overwhelm the dishonest, one-way communications strategy of this government. Here's hoping it happens sooner -- like in 2013. 


Some of these New Year's reflections were updated from an earlier column in The Source about Media Democracy Day. 


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