THE BLOG

Don't Let Rob Ford Define Our Digital Media

05/27/2013 12:34 EDT | Updated 07/27/2013 05:12 EDT

A yet-unpublished video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford allegedly making inappropriate statements while ingesting crack-cocaine has (somewhat predictably) garnered international attention over the past week.

There has been plenty for the press to talk about: the moral implications of his alleged actions, his release as coach of the Don Bosco Eagles, the firing of his Chief of Staff, and a range of pre-emptive eulogies of his tenure.

Yet bubbling beneath the surface of both local and international coverage has been the exploration of a complex and accelerating set of fundamental social tensions. Are the circumstances surrounding Mr. Ford's outing an example of a digital society in action, or technological fervour run amok?

In a sense, the scandal is a uniquely digital one.

It begins with the tape itself, allegedly recorded, stored, and shopped on the same type of smartphone many carry with us everywhere we go. Initial reports, broken on popular Internet blog Gawker (later corroborated by the Toronto Star) and instantly propelled through social media channels, travelled the world on ones and zeros.

Internet crowdfunding quickly emerged as the most viable tool to purchase rights to the video; Gawker's "Crackstarter" iteration has now raised over three-quarters of the $200,000 price tag. Politicians and observers clamoured to defend and critique the Mayor's circumstances through technological analyses of varying depths and applicability. Online platforms churned a host of important conversations ranging from ethical, to journalistic, to political.

But just as these provocative discussions about the new challenges presented by technological activism and journalism hit the mainstream, our ideological impulses took hold.

Defenders of the Mayor promoted problematic interpretations of online privacy restrictions and even the core validity of digital media, often alluding to the rise of a vindictive technological nation-state driven from the ideological left.

Meanwhile, opponents of Mr. Ford made concerning statements about a so-called "democratization of information" and tripped over themselves to anoint journalistic crowdfunding as a plausible model for long-term responsive governance and public accountability.

Through it all, journalists covering the story struggled to reconcile the pursuit of a legitimate news event with a precedent that reconfigures sources as vendors, their colleagues as wholesalers.

There is indeed room in our public discourse for important conversations about the shape of our increasingly digitized society. The calibration of privacy against accountability, vigilantism against institutionalization, and efficiency against access each deserve scrutiny at our dinner parties and bus stops.

But part of making sense of the unique genesis of this political moment will be resisting an impulse to project broader discomforts with the changing roles of technology in our society onto the particularities of Mr. Ford's predicament.

If the conduct alleged in this video proves to be the Mayor's political undoing, it will not be because of digitally-evaporated privacy, or the .mov file format, or technological elites hosting an online bake sale. It will be because of actions and statements that exposed hypocrisy, ignorance, and lack of judgment.

Ultimately, discussions surrounding the impacts of digital technologies on our political, ethical, and media landscapes deserve to be more than footnotes in the twisted saga of Mayor Rob Ford.