A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the tactics that Conservative leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper uses to maintain control within his party and his government. As the campaign continues, Harper continues to insist on being in control at all times. On twitter, Andrew Coyne (@acoyne), National Editor of Macleans Magazine, wrote about Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper’s question avoidance techniques:
It’s telling that in interviews Harper simply talks through and over questions he does not wish to answer. The interviewer asks a question. Harper talks around it. So the interviewer tries to follow up. At that point most ppl yield long enough to at least listen to the question. Harper does not. He just ploughs on.
At the local campaign level, the tactics of the Conservative candidates are equally controlling, but much messier. In addition to ignoring questions, in the riding of Peterborough, Ontario, staff and supporters of Conservative candidate Dean Del Mastro have gone as far as censoring, bullying and threatening critics of Mr. Del Mastro and the Conservative Party.
On March 28, 2011, Dean Del Mastro posted a remark on Facebook saying:
Just to be clear, the coalition members Gilles Ducceppe [sic], Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff are accusing the PM of lying…shocker! Trouble is that they tried to form a coaliton [sic] in 2008 and voted together to force an election that nobody wants as a coalition after making parliament a kangaroo court by voting as a bloc coalition. Canadians are too smart not to see through their nonsense.
In response, several people, including Ann Douglas, writer and democracy advocate in the Peterborough Riding (see her blog One Woman, One Blog), asked Mr. Del Mastro to clarify whether the Prime Minister did not, in fact, sign a letter in 2004 agreeing to a coalition with the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic Party. That question remained unanswered despite several follow-ups and prompting from other commenters for him to answer it. Mr. Del Mastro answered other questions, but continued to ignore that one.
According to Ms. Douglas, this was not an isolated incident: “He repeatedly dodged these questions. In fact, he refused to acknowledge the majority of the comments I posted to his page.”
In addition to ignoring questions, Mr. Del Mastro (or his staff) also began deleting comments from his Facebook page. In response to this behavior, a number of people started a Facebook page called Dean Del Mastro Shouldn’t Be Censoring Critics on April 2, 2011. On the Facebook page, members have been recording (via screen captures) and discussing incidents of comments being deleted from Dean Del Mastro’s page. This includes, for example, a series of comments by Ms. Douglas where she indicated the inappropriateness of comments from his supporters (calling Ann and others “Fiberal volunteers” and also asked Mr. Del Mastro why he “liked” those comments.
Mr. Del Mastro also deleted some of his own posts and all of the comments on them after the discussion didn’t go the way he hoped it would. For example, a wall posting he made explaining his pro-life stance was deleted from the page along with all of the comments on that posting.
Addressing the censorship directly on Mr. Del Mastro’s page in response to a comment about Dean Del Mastro’s Town Hall discussion, Ms. Douglas wrote:
If you welcome interaction, why did you remove at least three major discussion threads that were active on your Facebook page this evening, including some that you yourself initiated? Social media is about free and open discussion; not hand-picking which conversations and comments are allowed to survive. It is easy to carry on a conversation with traditional supporters; it is much more challenging to reach out to your entire constituency.
Those who have had comments removed from Mr. Del Mastro’s Facebook page are unable to figure out the rhyme or reason between what gets deleted and what is kept.
Supporters of Dean Del Mastro have also been consistently calling critics names and spreading false information about them. Mr. Del Mastro supporters have consistently called people who question Conservative policies “Fiberals,” suggesting both that they are Liberal Party volunteers and that they are lying (fibbing). This has continued despite assertions from the people in question that they are neither Liberal Party volunteers nor Liberal Party members.
Other comments have inaccurately accused citizens of hate speech, treated a student with a disability with extreme disrespect and continuously mocked anyone who disagrees with Mr. Del Mastro and his supporters or who questions their bullying tactics. Some profane insults even came from Mr. Del Mastro’s brother (Douglas Del Mastro). According to Ms. Douglas: “The more you try to correct the facts, the harder the political bully and his accomplices work to tarnish your reputation.” This is particularly surprising given that Mr. Del Mastro himself stood up in the House of Commons to object to a comment that was made about his weight.
The inaccurate nature of many comments has been pointed out to Mr. Del Mastro. However, unlike comments fairly questioning his party’s political stance on certain issues or unfairly attacking him (which were deleted from the page), these false statements about local citizens who support other parties have generally not been deleted from his page. Ms. Douglas ponders: “I wonder if he doesn’t see how unbalanced and vitriolic the comments are, in the same way that Fox News doesn’t perceive its own coverage as less than objective.”
Several critics commenting on the Mr. Del Mastro Facebook page have also had their New Democratic Party and Liberal Party lawn signs torn down while other similar signs in their neighborhood were left intact.
Del Mastro supporters have even gone as far as threatening critics. Peterborough resident Tanya Fusco has received anonymous threats to ruin her and also received messages indicating that the person sending the threats has personal information about her and her family. To protect her safety and the safety of her family, she has opted to stop commenting on the political campaign, stating on twitter: “As I have received hate messages from #CPC supporters, this is my last comment about the election for safety concerns.”
Use of Social Media During Election Campaigns
In a letter to Elections Canada, Douglas gave examples of the problematic behavior of Mr. Del Mastro and his supporters. She also questioned what the role of a Facebook page or other social media is during an election campaign. In her letter, she wrote:
This is my big-picture concern: a Facebook Page established by a Federal political candidate for use during an election is the online equivalent of a town hall. Citizens are encouraged to ask questions of political candidates. Political candidates answer questions from citizens and share other information that they consider to be relevant to the election. Citizens have an opportunity engage in discussion with other citizens about issues related to the election.
Partisan-motivated attacks on citizens would not be tolerated during a face-to-face political town hall, so they should not be tolerated during an online political town hall either. When the town hall is taking place in message board format, it is easy for a moderator to review message board posts and remove posts that violate the message board standards (whether those standards are stated or implied).
If there are not any Election Canada guidelines governing the moderation of social media spaces during election campaigns or those rules do not cover issues such as harassment, intimidation, and online bullying, those guidelines should be updated to reflect the new realities of online campaigning and citizens’ desires to meet and interact with political candidates online.
The goal should always be to encourage citizen engagement across the political spectrum, as opposed to the silencing of political critics.
Elsewhere in the Campaign
In Toronto, Liberal candidate Joe Volpe dismissed a volunteer on his campaign after he was caught removing Green candidate pamphlets from mailboxes and replacing them with Liberal ones. In Peterborough, however, Conservative candidate Dean Del Mastro continues to turn a blind eye as his supporters attack and threaten citizens who question the Conservatives policies and their record.
Should political candidates be obliged to create an open and safe space for citizens to engage in political discussion and debate? Or are silencing and bullying tactics acceptable?
Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.
Image: Screen Capture of Dean Del Mastro's Public Facebook Page