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Dave Snow: When political scientists get political

Commentary

If the Canadian public starts to wonder whether universities are providing value for money, social science and humanities departments ought to be nervous. Precarious provincial finances, coupled with the recently announced federal cap on international students, will inevitably put greater pressure on Canadian university budgets. Alongside less-than-stellar enrolment trends, there is increasing evidence of a lack of ideological diversity among these university faculty members, whose views are largely out of step with Canadian public opinion. Many in these departments seem to view their mission as “decolonizing the academy and embracing intersectional considerations” rather than producing knowledge or debate. 

In Canada, these trends have crept into my own discipline of political science. In 2022, the Canadian Political Science Association approved an equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization mission statement that, among other things, emphasized the need to “resist and undo the forces of colonialism.” 

More importantly, in October 2023 the new editors of the Canadian Journal of Political Science published a wide-reaching  letter declaring their intention to “modernize the journal with a particular focus on addressing the legacy and ongoing effects of colonialism and systemic racism within the discipline.” They declared the journal was officially “committed to equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization in its content, methodological approaches, and governance.” Prospective authors are now questioned “if Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Decolonization has been considered” when they submit their papers. This esteemed political science journal had stated its intentions to make decolonization a central pillar of the publication going forward. 

The Canadian Journal of Political Science is the flagship journal of the discipline in Canada. It  describes itself as the “primary forum for innovative research on all facets of Canadian politics and government as well as the principal outlet for Canadian political science scholarship.” The journal has traditionally published a wide range of quantitative and qualitative content on all facets of Canadian political science, from elections to political theory.

As such, the new editors’ statement effectively accused the journal itself of contributing to discrimination: “In Canadian Political Science,” they wrote, “whiteness and white androcentric [male-centred] paradigms have served a gatekeeping function, keeping a body of diverse scholars and scholarship out of the core of the discipline.” According to the editors, this “gatekeeping” was not merely a relic of the past, but an ongoing sin of the present: “The backlash and resistance these scholars have faced and continue to face is often couched in assertions that their research is biased, not empirical, and lacking rigour.” 

The new editors did not precisely specify which scholarship had been kept out of the discipline. But they were presumably referring to a broad range of “critical” and intersectional approaches that view politics, society, and academia as innately and structurally oppressive towards marginalized communities. Such scholarship is often criticized for its bias, lack of empirical rigour, and non-falsifiability. But the idea that it had been somehow excluded from the Canadian Journal of Political Science seemed to fly in the face of my experience as a peer reviewer and regular consumer of the journal’s content, who had already noticed an increasing amount of intersectionality in its pages.

Digging into the numbers

To determine if this was true, I conducted a content analysis of the abstracts of 227 papers—research articles, research notes, long-form review essays, brief “currents” pieces, and presidential addresses—published in issues of the Canadian Journal of Political Science between 2019-2023. (I excluded book reviews and the 24 brief pieces on COVID-19 that were published in a special section of the June 2020 issue). I reviewed the titles, abstracts, keywords, and, when necessary for the categorization described below, more detailed content in the papers themselves. The results of this analysis painted a very different picture than what the editors’ note suggested.

I first categorized each paper according to whether it contained some form of statistical or quantitative data collection and/or analysis—the most traditional form of “gatekeeping” in social science journals. I found that, while quantitative and statistical work remains prominent in the journal, it is by no means ubiquitous: 67 percent of all papers involved some form of quantitative data collection or analysis. Between 2019-2022 this percentage was roughly stable between 64-76 percent, though it dropped to 56 percent in 2023.

I also categorized each paper according to whether it had a major focus on marginalized communities—specifically, on race, women/gender, LGBTQ issues, and Indigenous Peoples. If, as the journal’s editorial board suggested, a “body of diverse scholars and scholarship” had been excluded from “the core of the discipline,” one would expect to find that research on marginalized communities was, well, marginalized. Yet this is not what I found. Fully 29 percent of papers published between 2019-2023 had a major emphasis on at least one of these marginalized communities (in 2023, it was 38 percent). A focus on Indigenous Peoples was most frequent: between 2019-2023, 14 percent of all papers published in the journal had a major focus on Indigeneity. This proportion was highest in 2023 when 19 percent of all papers (nine of 48) contained a major focus on Indigenous Peoples. 

Overall, the journal contains no shortage of papers which have sought to address the “legacy and ongoing effects of colonialism and systemic racism” in political science. However, perhaps the new editors were arguing that the journal’s previous “gatekeepers” have only allowed papers on marginalized communities to be published if they included quantitative empirical content and avoided critical theory. If that were the case, one would expect papers focusing on marginalized communities would include roughly the same proportion of statistical data analysis as other papers.

Alas, this was not the case. Only 54 percent of papers with a major focus on marginalized communities contained quantitative data collection or analysis, compared with 73 percent of papers that did not focus on marginalized communities. Nearly all this variance can be explained by papers focusing on Indigeneity: only 31 percent of all papers in which Indigenous Peoples featured prominently involved some form of quantitative data collection or analysis (10 of 32), compared with 73  of papers in which Indigenous Peoples did not feature prominently. This trend continued apace in 2023, when only one of nine papers focusing on Indigenous Peoples (11 percent) contained some form of quantitative data, compared with 67 percent of non-Indigenous-focused papers (26 of 39). 

There are many ways to interpret this data. One interpretation is that political science scholarship that focuses on marginalized communities, and Indigenous Peoples in particular, is simply less likely to require the rigorous use of data than scholarship on, say, elections or public opinion. There is likely some truth to this, though it does not fully explain why papers focusing on women/gender (78 percent) and the LGBTQ community (100 percent) had such high rates of data collection or analysis. Another interpretation could be that for certain forms of scholarship focusing on marginalized communities, reviewers and journal editors at the Canadian Journal of Political Science have reduced expectations that such research needs to involve the use of data. I have no special insight into whether either (or neither) of these interpretations is true. All I can say is that the journal editors’ accusation that gatekeepers have kept out diverse perspectives on the grounds of discriminatory empiricism is simply not supported by the data. 

A closer look at the content within these papers also dispels the idea that the journal is a bastion of “white androcentric paradigms” keeping out marginalized voices. Each of the past four annual addresses from the president of the Canadian Political Science Association (published in the journal each year) contained a substantial focus on Indigenous Peoples. Over the last five years, the journal has published papers with titles such as “The Politics of White Identity and Settlers’ Indigenous Resentment in Canada,” “Trampling on Indigenous and Treaty Rights after R v. Stanley: ‘That’s What You Get for Trespassing,’” and “Decolonizing Research on the Carceral in Canadian Political Science.” 

Authors have argued that non-Indigenous Canadians should “consider themselves ‘foreigners’ in need of invitation onto Indigenous lands,” that “the ability to engage in democratic activities is profoundly different depending upon which side of whiteness a person finds themself,” and that “a decolonized approach to studying the carceral [policing and prisons] must be relational and abolitionist, seeking to reduce and eliminate the use of carceral interventions.”

Protesters march to Parliament Hill in Gatineau at a “Cancel Canada Day” protest on Thursday, July 1, 2021. Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press.

Moreover, when these critical perspectives are published, they are rarely (if ever) challenged. Of the 32 papers published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science between 2019-2023 in which the topic of Indigenous Peoples featured prominently, none involved anything that could be considered a critique of the “decolonization” narrative that runs through so much of Canadian academia

Even in the quantitative work involving Indigenous Peoples published in the journal, scholars almost always include statements recognizing “the historic wrongs against Indigenous Peoples” or that it is “important to acknowledge the significant amount of invisible labour” that falls on “racialized and Indigenous faculty.” This is not to say that this scholarship is unworthy of publication, or that the sentiments expressed are not correct. It is only to say that these perspectives have not been marginalized. If anything, they are growing in salience. Far from being excluded from the discipline, authors engaging in what the journal’s editors referred to as “diverse” scholarship are publishing with greater frequency in the journal, without the expectation that the work must involve empirical data to ensure publication.

Conclusions

I draw three main conclusions. First, Canadian political science scholarship is clearly shifting in important ways. For better or worse, papers published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science reflect the discipline itself. While the discipline has not undergone a wholesale change (as seems to be the case in history), a sizeable proportion of Canada’s flagship political science journal is composed of papers using critical approaches and methodologies that place a greater emphasis on narratives of historical marginalization, particularly with respect to Indigenous Peoples and decolonization. 

Second, the journal’s openness to critical methodologies and identity diversity has been accompanied by a narrowing of its ideological diversity. While authors’ policy recommendations are by no means ideologically homogenous, they generally range from centre-left to far-left. This tilt is most obvious in papers that focus on decolonization, but it is present throughout the entire journal. Of 227 papers published over the last five years, I did not find a single one that provided anything approximating a conservative policy recommendation. By contrast, even the journal’s most empirically rigorous quantitative papers often contain recommendations such as “political parties should recruit and promote more women candidates” and “Policy tools specifically designed to problematize, target and alleviate racial economic inequality also seem needed.” Conservative scholars used to publish mildly conservative policy recommendations in the journal. Those days are now long gone.

Third, the journal editors’ statement is sadly reflective of similar statements made in Canadian higher education regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion, insofar as it refuses to acknowledge any previous progressive change. The Canadian Journal of Political Science had already clearly opened itself up to diverse perspectives and methodologies in recent years. Several papers in a 2017 special issue had already identified some of these changes. Yet this did not stop its new editors from claiming that the discipline was still engaged in “gatekeeping” on behalf of “white androcentric paradigms.” Thankfully, political scientists are well-equipped to use data to test the truth of such speculative arguments.

In spite of the challenges facing our universities, Canadians continue to profess high levels of trust in academics, including those in the social sciences and humanities. To retain such trust, we must demonstrate a commitment to the core purposes of the university: intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of truth. We do ourselves no favours when we abandon these goals in favour of political projects. 

Michael Geist: Red flags abound in new online harms legislation

Commentary

After years of delay, the government tabled Bill C-63, the Online Harms Act this week. The bill is really three-in-one: the Online Harms Act that creates new duties for internet companies and a sprawling new enforcement system, changes to the Criminal Code and Canada Human Rights Act that meet longstanding requests from groups to increase penalties and enforcement against hate but which will raise expression concerns and a flood of complaints, and expansion of mandatory reporting of child pornography to ensure that it includes social media companies.

This post will seek to unpack some of the key provisions, but with a 100+ page bill, this will require multiple posts and analysis. My immediate response to the government materials was that the bill is significantly different from the 2021 consultation and that many of the worst fears—borne from years of poorly thought-out digital policy—have not been realized. Once I worked through the bill itself, concerns about the enormous power vested in the new Digital Safety Commission, which has the feel of a new CRTC funded by the tech companies, began to grow.

At a high level, I offer several takeaways. First, even with some of the concerns identified below, this is better than what the government had planned back in 2021. That online harms consultation envisioned measures such as takedowns without due process, automated reporting to law enforcement, and website blocking. Those measures are largely gone, replaced by an approach that emphasizes three duties: a duty to act responsibly, a duty to make certain content inaccessible, and a duty to protect children. That is a much narrower approach and draws heavily from the expert panel formed after the failed 2021 consultation.

Second, there are at least three big red flags in the bill. The first flag involves the definitions for harms such as inciting violence, hatred, and bullying. As someone who comes from a community that has faced relentless antisemitism and real threats in recent months, I think we need some measures to combat online harms. However, the definitions are not without risks that they may be interpreted in an overbroad manner and have implications for freedom of expression.

The second flag—related to the first—is the incredible power vested in the Digital Safety Commission, which will have primary responsibility for enforcing the law. The breadth of powers is remarkable: rulings on making content inaccessible, investigation powers, hearings that under certain circumstances can be closed to the public, establishing regulations and codes of conduct, and the power to levy penalties up to 6 percent of global revenues of services caught by the law. There is an awful lot there and questions about Commission oversight and accountability will be essential.

The third flag is that the provisions involving the Criminal Code and Canadian Human Rights Act require careful study as they feature penalties that go as high as life in prison and open the door to a tidal wave of hate speech-related complaints.

Finally, this feels like the first internet regulation bill from this government that is driven primarily by policy rather than implementing the demands of lobby groups or seeking to settle scores with big tech. After the battles over Bills C-11 and C-18, it is difficult to transition to a policy space where experts and stakeholders debate the best policy rather than participating in the consultation theatre of the past few years. It notably does not include Bill S-210 style age verification or website blocking. There will need to be adjustments in Bill C-63, particularly efforts to tighten up definitions and ensure effective means to watch the watchers, but perhaps that will come through a genuine welcoming of constructive criticism rather than the discouraging, hostile processes of recent years.

Now to the bill with a mini-FAQ.

Which services are caught by the bill?

The bill covers social media services, defined as “a website or application that is accessible in Canada, the primary purpose of which is to facilitate interprovincial or international online communication among users of the website or application by enabling them to access and share content.” The Act adds that this includes adult content services and live streaming services. The service must meet a certain threshold of users in Canada for the law to apply (the threshold to be determined).

What duties do these services face?

As noted above, there are three duties: a duty to act responsibly, a duty to make certain content inaccessible, and a duty to protect children. The duty to act responsibly is the most extensive and it focuses on “measures that are adequate to mitigate the risk that users of the service will be exposed to harmful content on the service.” The Digital Safety Commission will be empowered to rule on whether companies have met this duty. Requirements include offering the ability to block users and flag content. The services must maintain available contacts and submit a digital safety plan to the Commission for review. There are detailed rules on what must be included in the plan. The services must also make their data available to researchers, which can be valuable but also raises potential privacy and security risks. The Commission would be responsible for accrediting researchers.

A duty to make certain content inaccessible focuses on two kinds of content: content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor or intimate content communicated without consent. The service must respond to flagged content and render it inaccessible within 24 hours. There is a notification and review process that follows.

A duty to protect children requires services to “integrate into a regulated service that it operates any design features respecting the protection of children, such as age-appropriate design, that are provided for by regulations.” There are few details available at this stage in the legislation about what this means.

A man uses a computer keyboard in Toronto in this Sunday, Oct. 9, 2023 photo illustration. Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press.
What harms are covered by the bill?

There are seven: sexually victimizing children, bullying, inducing a child to harm themselves, extremism/terrorism, inciting violence, fomenting hatred, and intimate content without consent including deep fakes.

How are these defined?

The definitions are where there may concerns in some instances. They are as follows:

Intimate content communicated without consent. This involves visual recordings involving nudity or sexually explicit activity where the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy and did not consent to the communication of the recording.

Content that foments hatredRefers to content that expresses detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination, within the meaning of the Canadian Human Rights Act, and that, given the context in which it is communicated, is likely to foment detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of such a prohibited ground.

Note that content has to reach a certain threshold to “foment hatred”—content does not express detestation or vilification solely because it expresses disdain or dislike or it discredits, humiliates, hurts, or offends.

Content that incites violence. This means content that actively encourages a person to commit—or that actively threatens the commission of—an act of physical violence against a person or an act that causes property damage, and that, given the context in which it is communicated, could cause a person to commit an act that could cause

(a) serious bodily harm to a person;

(b) a person’s life to be endangered; or

(c) serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility, or system.

Content that incites violent extremism or terrorism. This means content that actively encourages a person to commit—or that actively threatens the commission of—for a political, religious, or ideological purpose, an act of physical violence against a person or an act that causes property damage, with the intention of intimidating or denouncing the public or any section of the public or of compelling a person, government or domestic or international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act, and that, given the context in which it is communicated, could cause a person to commit an act that could cause

(a) serious bodily harm to a person;

(b) a person’s life to be endangered; or

(c) a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public.

Content that induces a child to harm themselves. Refers to content that advocates self-harm, disordered eating, or dying by suicide or that counsels a person to commit or engage in any of those acts, and that, given the context in which it is communicated, could cause a child to inflict injury on themselves, to have an eating disorder or to die by suicide.

Content used to bully a child. This means content, or an aggregate of content, that, given the context in which it is communicated, could cause serious harm to a child’s physical or mental health, if it is reasonable to suspect that the content or the aggregate of content is communicated for the purpose of threatening, intimidating or humiliating the child.

Content that sexually victimizes a child or revictimizes a survivor. This is a very long definition that includes multiple visual representations.

These are all obvious harms. The challenge will be to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and safeguarding against such harms. There are clearly risks that these definitions could chill some speech and a close examination of each definition will be needed.

Emma Williamson, 11, plays on the internet on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 at her home in Toronto. Nathan Denette/CP Photo.
How will the law be enforced?

This is the biggest red flag in the bill in my view. Enforcement lies with the new Digital Safety Commission, a new entity appointed by government with between three and five commissioners, including a chair and vice-chair. The Commission’s powers are incredibly broad-ranging. It can issue rulings on making content inaccessible, conduct investigations, demand any information it wants from regulated services, hold hearings that under certain circumstances can be closed to the public (the default is open), establish regulations and codes of conduct, issue compliance orders, and levy penalties up to 6 percent of global revenues of services caught by the law for compliance violations. Failure to abide by Commission orders can result in penalties of up to 8 percent of global revenues. The scope of the regulations covers a wide range of issues.

The law says the Commission must consider privacy, freedom of expression, and equality rights, among other issues. Despite those powers, the Commission is not subject to any legal or technical rules of evidence, as the law speaks to acting informally and expeditiously, an approach that seems inconsistent with its many powers.

In addition to the Commission, there are two other bodies: the Digital Safety Ombudsperson, who is responsible for supporting users, and the Digital Safety Office, which supports the Commission and Ombudsperson.

Who pays for all this?

Potentially the tech companies. The Act includes the power to establish regulations that would require the services caught by the Act to fund the costs of the Commission, Ombudsperson, and Office.

What about the Criminal Code and Human Rights Act provisions?

There are several new provisions designed to increase the penalties for online hate. This includes longer potential prison terms under the Criminal Code, including life in prison for advocating or promoting genocide. There are also expanded rules within the Canadian Human Rights Act that open the door to an influx of complaints on communicating hate speech (note that this does not include linking or private communications) with penalties as high as $20,000. These provisions will likely be a lightning rod over concerns about the chilling of speech and overloading the Human Rights Commission with online hate-related complaints.

And the mandatory reporting of child pornography?

These provisions expand the definition of Internet services caught by the reporting requirements.

This column originally appeared on michaelgeist.ca.