20th May 2024

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

PART 1: Politicians prefer human touch over social media

‘With social media, online harassment of political figures has become a serious issue,’ says Oro-Medonte councillor

Editor’s note: The following is the opening instalment in a three-part series.

Municipal politicians know they’ll face criticism for the decisions they make. It’s part of the deal of being an elected representative.

For the most part, local politicians say their in-person interactions with residents are generally respectful and courteous, even if they don’t see eye to eye on specific issues or when a debate gets heated.

Online, though, it’s a completely different ball game.

Social media, some local politicians say, has become the go-to channel for misinformation, harassment, bullying and intimidation.

“Most certainly, I have been harassed or ‘lobbied’ and intimidated quite forcefully to make a decision one way or another by very influential, successful and wealthy members of my own community who are used to getting their own way,” said Anita Moore, a Springwater Township councillor.

“Comments made like it’s ‘part of the job/what you get paid for’ — or (it’s) ‘what you signed up for,’ which gives the impression that the option and opportunity to smear your name and reputation, insult you or verbally abuse you is free game if they don’t agree with your decision-making,” she added.

Local township councillors make about $25,000 a year. Township mayors are paid a bit better, between $38,000 and $51,000 a year.

They’re not in it for the money.

“I have found that most council members that I have spoken with start out as volunteers in their local community,” Moore said. “They are community-minded people that enjoy helping others, being engaged and making a small difference in the lives of those around them.”

Moore said she used social media during her election campaign — “prior to this, I had no Facebook, Instagram, etc.” — because it was needed to reach as many voters as possible and keep her election messaging clear and consistent.

“As you continue to put yourself out there more often — attending events, functions, meetings that are livestreamed — it gives rise and opportunity for others to foster opinions, take positions, create a perspective about council members and, of course, be critical online from the sanctity and safety of their homes,” she said.

Essa Township Coun. Pieter Kiezebrink says he’s concerned about the growth of online harassment and bullying. He believes it’s because society has lost the ability to have constructive, reasoned dialogue.

“Folks in our society are losing … the ability to engage in civil conversation and debate when approaching topics from different perspectives or opinions,” Kiezebrink said. “This, I believe, is what is driving the majority of political harassment online along with the polarization of society.

“I’m not particularly active on social media as it is almost impossible to have a balanced civil conversation/debate in that forum,” he added. “I do hear from folks who are more active that there is no shortage of nasty comments aimed at myself, other council members and the township/staff.”

Like other local politicians, Kiezebrink says he has a non-engagement policy when it comes to social media. He says he has never been the victim of online bullying or harassment, but he’s also not interested in pushing his luck.

“I am sure that if one were to engage, it would quickly spiral down,” he said.

Essa’s deputy mayor, Michael Smith, is on the same page.

“I don’t get involved in social media,” he said. “I have seen how negatively it affects many other elected officials and I pride myself on helping those who contact me directly with their issues.”

‘Giant rumour mill’

At a recent council meeting, Springwater Deputy Mayor George Cabral offered his opinion of Facebook after he read a post from an online group dedicated to sharing township news that claimed local council was going to close library branches.

“I’m not a Facebook fan,” he said at the township’s April 3 council meeting. “Personally, I’ll tell you guys right now, social media is like a cancer. It’s nothing but a giant rumour mill.”

Cabral said his biggest issue with social media is the way people misuse what is otherwise an “incredible communications tool.”

“It affects every person who is digitally connected and there is very little, if any, defence or immunity from this instantaneous digital harassment, hate or ridicule,” he said. “It’s just too easy for some folks to be rude, outspoken and, quite frankly, threatening at times.”

Cabral’s opinion is echoed by others.

Oro-Medonte Coun. Lori Hutcheson addressed cyberbullying at a township council meeting that happened to fall on Pink Shirt Day, which is an annual event against bullying.

“With social media, online harassment of political figures has become a serious issue,” she said at the February meeting. “Unfortunately, this negative activity is even happening here in Oro-Medonte.

“This activity spreads misinformation and belittles the characters of those who have put themselves forth to serve on council,” she added. “It doesn’t provide solutions and it has the potential to divide our community.”

Hutcheson said it was important for the community to be aware that bullying takes many forms and no one is immune.

Essa Mayor Sandie Macdonald has been on township council for more than 20 years. During that time, she said she’s never been bullied or intimidated. She’s had discussions with folks who haven’t liked some of council’s decisions, but because she was transparent and honest with them, she put out “fires” before they started.

“Today, social media has people not informed and spreading incorrect information or just wanting to stir the pot,” she said.

“I do not get involved with Facebook,” Macdonald added. “I have an open-door policy to reach out to me and together we can try to work out concerns.”

Essa Coun. Liana Maltby said she’s been fortunate during her time as a public figure — she’s never felt intimidated.

“I have spoken to some residents who are very passionate about their concerns, but I have not felt bullied,” she said.

While Springwater Coun. Danielle Alexander says she thinks the term “bullying” is overused, she acknowledged social media has become “an extremely unhealthy environment.”

From a political perspective, Alexander said she’d rather not engage on social media, but it’s difficult not to because social media is a good way to talk directly to residents.

“I find it unfortunate people use social media to directly attack the character of their elected officials,” she said. “While it is fine to disagree with the way I vote on an issue, I find the comments on posts often cross a line and become aggressive and disrespectful.

“What I find most interesting, given that Springwater is a small community, I will often run into these people who have no problem unabashedly expressing their opinions about me on a social media platform but will not engage in that conversation with me face to face,” she added.