Congress in Conversation - Part III with Aliyah Datoo

June 20, 2024

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Introduction | About the guest | Aliyah Datoo's Research at Congress | Transcript | Follow us




Welcome to Congress in Conversation, a special series presented by the Big Thinking Podcast in partnership with The Conversation Canada where we convene researchers presenting at Congress 2024 to share their research and experiences within the context of shared responsibility to our society, systems, and planet. 

For our last episode of this special series at Congress, our host Annie Pilote, Chair of the Federation's Board of directors is joined by Aliyah Datoo, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University.

About the guest

Headshot of Aliyah Datoo


Aliyah Datoo is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University, where she is completing a Master's degree in Political Science, Community Development, Francophonie in a Minority Context, Communications and Social Networks.  

Passionate about community issues and francophonie in a minority context, Aliyah aims to better understand the communicative dynamics within British Columbia's francophone community.

Her research interests focus on communication, political science, sociology and social sciences. 



Aliyah Datoo's research at Congress: 

Title of Aliyah Datoo's research: "Let's deliberate! Franco-Colombian Community Organizations and Democratic Deliberation in the Digital Environment".


This interpretive project explores the role of community organizations in structuring online discussions within the francophone community in British Columbia. Social networks offer community members opportunities to dialogue and express themselves within these digital platforms, bringing members of the public together in an effort to improve society. 
The findings point to a lack of resources and time to bring individuals together on these platforms, but also to community fragmentation.  
This research uses unique approaches and the subject of the research, the francophone community in British Columbia, is under-represented. The goal of this research is not only to contribute to the field, but also to help the community call for more support. 

[00:00:12] Annie Pilote: Welcome to Congress in Conversation, a special series presented by the Big Thinking Podcast and The Conversation Canada, where we invite researchers participating in Congress 2024 to share their research and experiences within the context of our shared responsibility to our society, our systems and planet. 

[00:00:36] My name is Annie Pilote and I'm the President of the Federation's Board of Directors and your host for this episode of Congress in Conversation. My guest today is Aliyah Datoo, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University.

[00:00:55] Annie Pilote: Hi Aliyah, it's nice to meet you today, so can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what sparked your interest in the topic of online community organizing?

[00:01:07] Aliyah Datoo: Yes, of course. So, it all started even before university, when I was in high school, I was in a very Anglophone context, but I was looking for initiatives rather in French. So I continued with my studies in the French Cohort Program in public and international affairs at SFU, in French and political science.

[00:01:24] And there, I was able to continue with my studies in French, I was able to practice the language a bit, and also acquire knowledge in political science. And in that sense too, I was already somewhat connected to the French-speaking community through these initiatives at SFU. And at that point, I really felt welcomed and at home in the community.

[00:01:45] And it was a good feeling because I didn't really feel like I was part of a big community in that sense and that's something I really appreciated so I started volunteering and then working within the community. And when it came time for me to decide to do a master's degree, I remember that I'd already decided what I wanted to do on social networks.

[00:02:06] But I wasn't exactly sure how to go on with it. So I had a discussion with my project manager. He asked the question, “but why not the French-speaking community? Because you're already part of it, it's something you like.” And I think that was an "aha!" moment, a kind of key moment for me to really get to know myself and also understand that I could really do something for my community too.

[00:02:29] And so I said to myself, I'm going to continue with this, analyze the speeches that present themselves online in the eyes of the communicators who are within the community and see the types of speeches that have just taken place, how it presents itself, what it feels like within the community.

[00:02:47] And the community is quite small, it's the fifth largest official language minority community. About 1.5% of the population speaks French, and I'm just going to distinguish that it's the French-speaking community in British Columbia and not the community in Colombia, because it's a title that can be a little confusing.

[00:03:10] Annie Pilote: So, Aliyah, when you discussed this theme with your research supervisor and the possibility of looking at the Francophone community in British Columbia emerged, he was very interested in this proposal.

[00:03:27] I'd be curious to hear more about his point of view and the interest he saw in this project.

[00:03:36] Aliyah Datoo: I think he saw everything I was doing during my bachelor too. So I was doing a lot of student initiatives in French. And it was at that time, when I was doing my bachelor's degree, there weren't necessarily that many initiatives in political science that were in French, of course we had initiatives in French at the university for sure, but I was looking in that sense for a little bit more.

[00:04:00] I saw things that were a bit lacking, so I said to myself, well, if there aren't any, I'll create them myself in a way, so I think it was a bit in that spirit that I want to continue with French, I'm looking for initiatives and I'm not someone who's just going to stand on the sidelines. So I think that was kind of it, where he said "oh well yes, in that sense you can do something."

[00:04:25] So it also gave me enough energy to continue with this research. And I also had a lot of fun doing interviews, talking to community members and finally writing something on behalf of this community too. 

[00:04:38] Annie Pilote: How does this francophone community in British Columbia use online spaces and what type of discussion caught your attention?

[00:04:49] Aliyah Datoo: Yeah, so that's pretty interesting. So that was something where I was seeing, even before doing the research, we're using certain platforms certainly to promote different initiatives like that, to try to attract the community to initiatives, to programs to their interest, that may be of interest to them. 

[00:05:07] But also in that sense, support programs and so on. And what really interested me was the political aspect of these discussions. I'm going to differentiate between “le” and “la” politique. So, from what I've seen, it's really “le” politique that we're trying to do.

[00:05:24] So, rather, as I mentioned, programs, initiatives for the community and not “la” politique, which is really associated with partisanship, which is not necessarily the interest of community organizations. So, in that sense, it's really about visibility and promotion, especially on social networks.

[00:05:44] It was also interesting how they were equipped. Especially, for example, Instagram for a more youthful audience, rather than LinkedIn or Twitter - X now - which is used more for administrators and politicians. It was still interesting to see how there are different target audiences on these networks, and the different content that's published too. 

[00:06:05] Annie Pilote: Now, in terms of the theoretical approach, you used for this research the theory of deliberative democracy to measure the openness of dialogue and how it translates in terms of belonging. So, could you explain what you were looking for and what were your main findings with this approach?

[00:06:24] Aliyah Datoo: Yeah, sure. So, it's kind of a typical ideal theory. So, I used a theory by Jürgen Habermas, a public sphere theory. It's the ways in which the public will engage with certain topics, the openness of spaces, and really the levels of democracy that present themselves in those spaces. 

[00:06:43] So on social networks it was quite interesting because we see a public that's quite fragmented, quite territorially dispersed, so we saw that especially in the case of our Francophonie on rather physical terrain, it was of course also the case in a rather digital terrain and there what I also saw was [...] I used that theory to analyze the level of democracy we see online.

[00:07:06] Who participates? In what ways? To what extent? Who's talking, who's not? And finally, if we can observe that. And it was interesting, I would say, it was an imperfect public sphere, from what we saw. So, in that sense, having great discussions, great debates online, so by debate, I mean open discussion, reaction to certain publications, we didn't see that too much, traditionally.

[00:07:33] So, for example, below an Instagram post, you're not necessarily going to see a big debate in the comments below, but in a rather semi-private context, for example, Facebook groups where you see that you have to request access, and you have certain members who can talk. Here, we saw a lot more "open" discussion.

[00:07:56] But in that sense, it's smaller, it's on a smaller scale. And you can see that it's a bit of a modern way of looking at it, perhaps, in a context that's quite particular. 

[00:08:08] Annie Pilote: Could you give some examples of responses that you've gotten or conversations that have stood out for you that happen in these online spaces that are different from how they happen publicly?

[00:08:22] Aliyah Datoo: I can give an example, there was someone who mentioned that there are certain private groups - I'll take an example of a Facebook group - and that group uses that space to interact with other members who may be interested in their content.

[00:08:34] These initiatives made by the community for the community, were a particular group, a sub-group, and the person with whom I spent this interview realized that in a much more open context, other members of the community might be a little bored with the content because it's not their destination. They won't necessarily feel engaged by it.

[00:09:00] That was also what I saw, that there were a lot of people who saw that there's a community that lacks awareness. By that, I mean there are members who aren't necessarily aware of what's going on in our francophone community.

[00:09:17] And here too, what I saw was that social networks also pose a problem with message passing, because especially with algorithms and all that, it's very difficult in a sense to reach a certain audience, especially because algorithms [are] difficult to master - you don't have too many resources there too and it's also a lot of learning, a lot of time, a lot of resources. 

[00:09:41] Annie Pilote: In terms of methodology, you conducted semi-structured interviews with community members, but you also monitored the platforms to see how certain aspects of communication were taking place behind the scenes. So, what did you learn from these methods?

[00:09:56] Aliyah Datoo: So I used interviews instead. So I wasn't on the social networks analyzing in that sense. And the reason I did semi-structured interviews was to really analyze the normative and descriptive nature of the theory. So, since the theory is a rather critical one, with a typical ideal being proposed, I wanted to see through the eyes of the community what had just happened within these social networks.

[00:10:23] So, I interviewed communicators, i.e. social network account managers and general managers who are also responsible for these accounts. Because they're the people responsible for really feeding these networks and they'll be able to have this critical eye towards the types of content, towards the types of reactions that have just taken place.

[00:10:46] Also, with the normative stuff. It was to see what's still missing from the community. And it's especially, we have several things that seem to be missing, especially with community members who aren't necessarily aware of what's going on, we have resources that are missing, there's a lot that still needs to be done, a lot of discussions to be had, that's certainly it.

[00:11:06] As a researcher, I couldn't just say, "me as a member of the community", I especially wanted to prioritize the community’s voice as well and have this rather open perspective in that sense.

[00:11:19] Annie Pilote: In terms of the lack of resources and time to bring people together on these platforms, but also the fragmentation of the community that you've observed through your research, are you able to elaborate on these aspects?

[00:11:34] Aliyah Datoo: Mostly because we're limited by finances, and I say we , just in general organizations. I've worked with several, so that's why I say we. But yes, we're short of resources, we're short of time, because we're given some big files to manage. We have certain things, we want to do everything, but we're limited.

[00:11:55] I remember there was someone I was interviewing. There's a person there who manages all the social networks, all the communications for their organization. And it's not something that's out of the norm. It's usually a team of 1 to 3 people managing all the social networks, all the communications for an entire organization.

[00:12:12] It's a lot of work. So that's it too, we're limited by finances, certain obligations on the part of partners, stakeholders. So it's a mixture of a lot of responsibilities and a lot of obstacles at the same time, I'd say. 

[00:12:29] Annie Pilote: So, the aim of the discussions is to improve society. Can you tell us more about that? How can these discussions contribute to that goal?

[00:12:40] Aliyah Datoo: Yes, so I'd say, especially in the context of a minority francophonie, the idea is, I'd say, in an ideal world, we'd like to promote our community, promote it and ultimately contribute to its sustainability, its visibility, its continuity. So that's what it's all about. If we don't have these discussions, we won't be able to build a community.

[00:13:02] Our communities are stronger than our members. So, we really need to have that participation to be able to contribute to the sustainability of our communities. And in that sense too, we understand that sometimes it's hard to reach all the members of our community, but in that sense, it's also about finding ways to engage those members.

[00:13:24] So it's a big question we've been asking ourselves, and I think it's important to keep asking ourselves these questions so that we can evolve over time. 

[00:13:32] Annie Pilote: Do you have any recommendations?

[00:13:36] Aliyah Datoo: So, I have five main recommendations So, the first one is really reflections on accessibility and community awareness. So, there was one person, for example, who mentioned that, of course, there is racism within our francophone community. We need to listen to that community.

[00:13:53] Of course, we have sub-communities within our Francophone community, and it's important to recognize these contexts. It's also important to adapt these communications, because not everyone is on social networks. So we also have to find ways, perhaps, of bridging these two realities, these two platforms, these two places of discussion too.

[00:14:13] What was also interesting to see - and this is something we've echoed in past research as well - is bilingual communications that can escape the algorithms in place. Of course we want to value the French language, but it's still something that's interesting to think about if we want to adapt this.

[00:14:30] Also, community concertation, so intra-community, really participating in these regular discussions between community members, finding strategies, because we know what we need in the end. But having several people thinking at the same time, we can come up with better ideas and really maybe build something better together.

[00:14:50] And also, finding ways to encourage participation. You can find good spokespeople, for example, so that people feel represented. And that's something that was mostly mentioned during the interviews, that in order to reach a certain group, we need to feel called upon to do something for our community. 

[00:15:08] Annie Pilote: I'd be curious to know what your next steps are, both in following up on these recommendations, but perhaps also in developing more knowledge around the issues that interested you during your master's degree.

[0:15:22] Aliyah Datoo: Yes, so I think the important thing here is that we need to talk, we need to communicate along these lines. So I strongly encourage the communicators, the executive directors of these organizations, to talk to each other about it because we have all the ideas, we can find something together to generate more interest in the community and also call on people who are mainly listeners, who are mainly going to speak on behalf of the community because there, maybe they can also find people like them who want to do more.

[00:15:55] So, in that sense, having our spokesperson who can say to a certain sub-group "eh, there's something missing in our community, we need to do something." And also in terms of building knowledge, I think it would also be interesting to see the side rather of community members, see what they've just seen, especially also analyze the networks, especially for example with Instagram, the different ways of communicating.

[00:16:22] So for example, not only text, but also images, the importance of different communication formats too. But yes, in that sense, I hope it will be able to promote community initiatives in particular, because we have so many great initiatives, but we just need a little support in that sense. 

[00:16:42] Annie Pilote: Well, I hope so too, and I wish you good luck for the rest of your journey.

[00:16:47] Aliyah Datoo: Thank you, thank you very much. 

[00:16:59] Annie Pilote: Thank you for listening to Congress in Conversation and thank you to my guest, Aliyah Datoo. I'd also like to thank our friends and partners at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the production company CitedMedia, without whom this podcast would not be possible, and The Conversation Canada, our partner for this special feature. 

[00:17:20] You can find previous episodes of the Big Thinking Podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Let us know what you thought of this episode by connecting with us on social networks. À la prochaine!


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