It is not only by such events, however, that the effects of social media on Franco-Canadian civic life should be measured. Indeed, we must also pay heed to the slower, more pernicious structural and cultural changes that social media channels are bringing about in Canada, and the effects on francophones’ rights and vital interests.
The social media revolution has been a disaster for traditional media, particularly in its impact on the distribution of advertising revenue. Publicists now principally purchase ad time and space on the publicity templates of online companies that distribute news, but produce none. The effects of this shift are significant for large-scale publications, and even greater for media in minority communities.
Franco-Canadian regional newspapers, which already have lower average circulation than their non-urban English-language counterparts, are deeply affected by the massive reduction in revenue. And the federal government’s actions have been part of the problem. Between 2006 and 2015, its advertising spending in French-language newspapers in minority communities fell by 78 per cent, while spending on French-language community radio fell by 73 per cent. During this same period, the government of Canada nearly tripled its advertising investments to the web, from $5 million to $14 million. For an industry sector more dependent than its English counterpart on federal advertisement spending, the results of this shift in spending have been catastrophic. It stands to reason that social media’s domination represents a threat to the vitality of Franco-Ontarian civic life.
The current linguistic crisis in Ontario has made it clear that French-language media play a vital role in protecting the rights of francophones in minority communities throughout this country. Ontario's francophone media did a remarkable job of covering the events of November 2018. While some English-language media relayed the news, it took a week (and pressure from Quebec commentators) before they took a stand in favour of the Franco-Ontarian cause. In the absence of strong francophone media in Ontario, Ford’s attempt at undermining Franco-Ontarian rights and interests would probably not have registered on the radar. This establishes beyond doubt that the vitality of francophone media is essential to the defence of the rights of Canadian francophones outside Quebec.
What is more, considerations of cultural survival cannot be set aside. Bilingualism is the essence of Canadian democracy. Threats to cultural survival of minority francophone communities are thus threats to our nation’s distinctive democratic character.
In an article published in the journal Minorités linguistiques et société, Christiane Bernier, Simon Laflamme and Sylvie Lafrenière write: “Among francophone minorities, having access to a large number of French-language media has a positive effect on language choices: the more French-language media in their environment, the more francophones use it." This suggests the reverse is also true: Among francophone minorities, limited access to French-language media leads to a reduction in the use and vitality of the French language. So the social media revolution, and more specifically the traditional media advertising revenue crisis that has followed, represents a threat to the cultural survival of Franco-Canadian minority communities. Thus, by weakening one of the principal pillars of healthy democratic life en français in Franco-Canadian communities across majority-English provinces and territories – namely access to local and regional French-language publications and news – the social media revolution has become a menace to Canadian bilingual democracy.
The news is not all bad, though. It is not pre-determined that the current trends cannot be reversed through the implementation of appropriate public policy and legislation. Is it possible for Canadians to benefit from social media’s uses as a vector of rapid democratic mobilization and civic engagement in support of a variety of causes – including Franco-Canadian rights – while correcting for its deleterious effects on the media essential to the civic life and cultural survival of Francophone minorities? This question may be answered in the affirmative.