Stop Feeding The Trolls, Start Knocking On Doors
The 43rd Canadian federal election will take place later this month, and to say it’s been a unique bordering on bizarre election cycle is largely accurate. From the Conservatives arguing with a former MuchMusic on-air personality, to Justin Trudeau’s blackface debacle, to a fixation on insurance broker licensing minutiae, it has made the 2015 election look relatively tame by comparison.
There is, of course, also the issue of alleged ‘Dark Money’ and the rise of groups such as Ontario / Canada Proud and Progress North, acting as third-party advertisers. Unfortunate developments which threaten to lead Canada’s political landscape down the same road as our southern neighbours, and not adding much to Canadian political discourse beyond further focusing voters attention on feelings rather than facts.
The role of social media might seem like a minor issue, but overall it speaks to how politics in Canada has changed. Ever since the Progressive Conservatives, thanks to Stephen Harper’s cunning and Peter MacKay’s ethical lapses merged with the Canadian Alliance, that party’s messaging took a decidedly populist turn. The election of populist premiers like Jason Kenney in Alberta and Doug Ford in Ontario further underscores that we have to examine politics in Canada under a new lens.
Despite the fact that social media is a natural home for populist activism, populist governments in Canada have often stated that it has a disproportionately small impact on election results. The United Conservative Party’s issues management director has specifically, and somewhat ironically stated on Twitter that the support for the NDP on social media did not translate into results in the provincial election. While I would not agree with the statement that social media ‘doesn’t matter’, given the choice it is not where I would focus activism efforts if the end goal is electoral results.
It’s been said that you can’t fact check a feeling, and right-leaning parties and groups have largely made emotional appeals to Canadians to win their votes. On key issues such as immigration, the economy, and terrorism, ad campaigns often focus on getting the viewer emotional, and in particular getting them angry. This has been a feature of negative politics and ‘attack ads’ predating the current climate, but it was never as prominent as it is today. Weaponizing anger is a very useful tool for a variety of reasons.
Today in Canada, political discourse perhaps most closely resembles the structure of professional wrestling. Much has been made of leaders being deceitful, and statements in parliament are protected by ‘parliamentary privilege’ which is a fancy way of saying there are not many if any consequences for being less than truthful in a house of government. This closely resembles the fact that the stories and personalities of professional wrestling are fabricated, and the most important metric in judging whether content is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is how the audience reacts.
A little under a year ago Eric Bischoff gave a very insightful TEDx talk on comparisons between modern news media and professional wrestling, and they are equally applicable to modern western politics. For those who didn’t live and breathe professional wrestling in their youth such as I, Eric Bischoff is a former Executive Vice-President of Turner Broadcasting, and former President of World Championship Wrestling (WCW). In those roles, he led the company to nearly putting Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF/E) out of business before the AOL / Time-Warner merger forced him to tame his content, the end result being the sale of WCW to McMahon.
In Bischoff’s talk, he focuses on the effect that anger has on the average person in relation to their thought processes. Bischoff states ‘When you get angry, you stop thinking.’ He makes this statement in reference to the trend of news media sensationalizing stories to lure viewers in, or ‘clickbait’. An apt comparison on its own, but also applicable to the current political climate of division and anger.
If you watch political exchanges on Twitter, it is largely emotional exchanges between partisan positions. Getting people to feel anger rather than think drives engagements such as likes and retweets, and such engagement gives the content creator a rush of serotonin. Factual statements, or even civil discourse are not incentivized by the platform, and an apt description of Twitter when it comes to politics is ‘largely people yelling their own politics at each other’. Additionally, arguing with people with few followers who are good at capturing your attention via intentionally posting false or inflammatory information is probably the biggest way to waste activism bandwidth.
Once upon a time, Twitter might have been a representative slice of the population at large. During the time of the ‘Arab Spring’, Twitter gained notoriety for enabling democratic reforms in oppressive regimes. Since then however, most social media platforms have fallen victim to the plague of algorithms, essentially mechanisms the platform employs to ‘curate’ the content you see. This enables the creation of even more intense echo chambers, and distorted views of the public’s political leanings. Even if hashtag activism was the most powerful political tool in existence, algorithmic curation ensures that its effect is not widespread.
People skilled at upsetting others online, sometimes referred to as ‘trolls’ are commonplace today. Despite their primary effect of antagonizing their political adversaries, they have an added benefit of occupying activism bandwidth, as nothing is more tempting than arguing with someone else who you perceive to be incorrect online. In our system of democracy, where (more or less) the most votes win, directing your energy to smaller, segmented portions of the population is not a great use of time.
If you want to combat the wave of populism that has arrived in Canada, stop arguing with online entities that upset you, and start knocking on some doors for your political party of choice. For better or worse, we live in a democratic system, and democracy is all about counting votes. It can be fun and emotionally rewarding to ‘dunk’ on someone on Twitter, but it’s not going to prevent populist governments from getting elected. Emotional appeals are a powerful tool, and social media platforms do not incentivize combatting them with factual information.
If you are going to spend the time to get politically involved, do it door-knocking, volunteering for campaigns, or providing factual information in a fashion that seeks to inform rather than lecture. It might be the only effective tool to turn the tide on the current currents of anger and division that permeates politics.