The CBC’s Great Canadian Wish List turns into a Great Flame War

CBCโ€™s Great Canadian Wish List

Just over a month ago, the CBC launched their Great Canadian Wish List project on Facebook. Reaching out to the young people of Canada (who use Facebook), the project aims to gauge “grassroots” support among them by allowing users to create a “wish” or cause that others can then support. The most popular “wishes” will then be made part of the CBC’s Canada Day coverage special. With so many issues facing our modern Western society, the project had lofty goals in attempting to stoke the interests of youth. However, as expected, the “wish list” has mostly descended into another yet another debate on abortion, and gay marriage.

Burn baby, burn

Despite this being the CBC, I don’t believe they could’ve been this clueless. While the Wish List had noble aims – that is, seeing what was really on the minds of young Canadians – it’s all too easy for such a venue to become overrun by polarizing issues, especially in North America. Any sort of “debate” on the Internet almost invariably devolves into a flame war – it is rare to see a well-rounded debate here, since there are no real moderators, and all it takes is one bad apple to ignite the volatile mixture.

Thus, you can see how it didn’t take long for “Abolish Abortion in Canada” and “I wish that Canada would remain pro-choice” to become the two top wishes on the list. Gay marriage, the Paris Hilton of debate issues (in terms of relevance) isn’t far behind in the polls. The numbers change constantly, and so does the leading wish, as people from both camps attempt to rally “grassroots” support amongst the users of Facebook. Of course, the accuracy of these numbers at determining “true” national opinion on these issues is suspect. First of all, it’s a voluntary Internet poll, so by definition it is limited to only those who care for using the Internet to express their views. Secondly, it’s limited to Facebook users. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the polls aren’t limited to Canadians, so obviously issues that are popular in America are going to rise to the top here.

Godwin’s Law invoked

One of my biggest peeves with online debate is the ease with which preposterous comparisons and straw-man attacks reign supreme. Evidently, most people who’ve never even heard of logical fallacies think it’s a brilliant idea to compare an argument to something horrible, in an attempt to draw the negative emotional response associated with it. For example, take a look at this comments page in response to an anti-abortion/pro-life article that was part of the Great Canadian Wish List project. As expected, there are a plethora of responses, and I count no fewer than four references to “Hitler” – supporting both sides of the debate! This was actually a relatively good “Internet debate”, as far as my experience goes, and yet we still could not avoid the “Reductio ad Hitlerum” fallacy.

I still don’t know why this persists, especially in online debate. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you can espouse a ridiculous argument over the Internet, and not look like a fool behind its protective wall. Godwin’s Law has been around since 1990 – that’s right, 1990, before there was even a real Web, and dial-up was a luxury only real geeks could afford. (Or sacrifice to obtain) Godwin’s Law is perhaps one of the things about the Internet that will never change – remarkable for something that often changes so fast.

Fanning the flames of discontent

However large my distaste for logically misconstrued arguments is, my real problem is not with the participants of this project, but rather with the CBC itself. They must have known that this “Great Canadian Wish List”, with its prospects of getting prime time news coverage to any topic that had great “grassroots” support, would have been divisive and bitter. And yet, they chose to go ahead with it anyway, using one of the largest and most active social networks, Facebook, as their launching platform. The issues brought forth may not even be of true major concern to most Canadians (since apparently anyone can vote), and furthermore the numbers may not be truly representative. However, the appearance is impressive, thanks to outspoken groups on both sides.

It’s hard to say whether the numbers of supports are really indicative of grassroots support, or rather due to an organized few. For example, it was recently revealed that 99% FCC complaints about aired TV content are due to a single activist group – the Parents Television Council. With their efforts, complaints skyrocketed from a mere 350 complaints in 2000 to a whopping 240,000 in 2003. (Reminds me of that time Stephen Colbert tried to get that bridge named after him.) Without this knowledge, one would think that the massive increase in complaints filed to the FCC was due to some sort of revival of “morals” or a huge increase in objectionable content on TV, or both. Clearly, this is not the case.

The chances of this occurring with something like CBC’s Great Canada Wish List are all too high. Not only do the loudest groups get their views promoted to the top on Facebook, but they also get the resultant mess aired on CBC, and their issues brought to the forefront, no matter how divisive or irrelevant. Never mind that the results may not be accurate, even in the context of Internet polls, and never mind that Canadians aren’t the only ones participating in the polls – this was all done to provide a nice ratings boost and a little something different than traditional Canada day coverage.

Shame on you CBC, shame on you.

Comments for this entry are closed

But feel free to indulge in some introspective thought.