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b.c. election 2017

Linda Higgins never had much to do with Twitter until her nephew told her she was trending because of a campaign-trail encounter with BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark.

While the Sunshine Coast resident was having lunch in North Vancouver last Thursday, Ms. Higgins realized Ms. Clark was campaigning at a nearby market and went over to speak with her.

"I would never vote for you because of what …"

Related: Inside the campaigns for the B.C. election

Ms. Clark cut her off: "You don't have to – that's why we live in a democracy." She then walked away.

The encounter began trending across Canada with the hashtag #IamLinda, which people used to express their own frustrations with the B.C. government, prompting allegations from BC Liberals that Ms. Higgins was an NDP plant sent to disrupt the event, something she denies.

The incident comes just over a week before a close provincial election.

Ms. Clark's party is seeking its fifth straight governing mandate, while the NDP opposition under John Horgan is looking to win an election for the first time since 1996. In a race that polls say is extremely tight, the social-media maelstrom around Ms. Higgins has galvanized Ms. Clark's opponents.

Ms. Higgins, a former social-worker assistant and civil servant, calls the plant allegations "totally false."

"No one knew I was going to speak to Christy Clark. I didn't know it myself until the moment before." Also, she isn't sure she wants an apology. "I don't think it would be believable at this point," she said. "I think [Ms. Clark] was truthful in her manner when she saw me."

The tide of social media allegations that the 61-year-old was an NDP plant came from BC Liberals, including campaign director Laura Miller, and other supporters. On Monday, the Liberals would not respond to the issue of whether they would apologize. After saying there would be a statement on the matter, party spokesperson Alexis Pavlich said there would be no statement.

Ms. Higgins saw Ms. Clark and wanted to talk because she is concerned about issues such as flaws in the B.C. education system, and the housing affordability issue. Her two grown children face challenges in the housing market despite having good jobs.

Beyond the moment, there is a larger, evolving issue for the election campaign. Alfred Hermida, director of the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, crunched some numbers and tallied 25,885 #IamLinda tweets between April 28 and April 30. By comparison, there were 32,576 tweets on #bcelxn17 – 7,779 of which included the #IamLinda hashtag, and 24,014 #cdnpoli tweets.

"The danger here for the Liberals – Christy Clark – is that this becomes the narrative: they're aloof; they're out of touch; they don't care," said Dr. Hermida. "For political events to get traction on social media, they need to become more about policy. They need to become personal."

Part of the assumptions about Ms. Higgins may have been fuelled because Nicholas Simons, an NDP incumbent on the Sunshine Coast, tweeted a photo of himself with Ms. Higgins after the controversy began. Ms. Higgins says she worked with Mr. Simons when he was in the civil service some years ago. "I kept in touch from afar. I see him in the coffee shop and I see him on the ferry." He is now her MLA and she has voted for him. "He is always there for people."

Ms. Higgins said she has separated the issue from herself, and considers it more about the bigger picture of politics in B.C. "They don't know me so they are making assumptions although the assumptions have been proven wrong,"she says of her critics.

Ms. Clark and the BC Liberals, have been under fire for other farfetched assumptions. In February, Ms. Clark apologized after accusing the NDP of hacking the BC Liberal Party website. Her allegation came after a party document was sent to a journalist.

On Monday, Ms. Clark said she regretted some aspects of her encounter with Ms. Higgins, telling The Jeff O'Neil Show on CFOX radio that she wished she had stopped to speak to Ms. Higgins.

"I normally try to, but the thing is, you go to these things and they're just whipping through and there are a hundred people to talk to so I do move a little bit more quickly. But the thing is we live in a democracy and she gets a chance to confront me and tell me she doesn't like me and, good for her, right?"

Ms. Clark told the CFOX hosts, "I am sure that happens to you all the time. 'I listen to CFOX. I hate it. You're awful.' "

Asked what she expected Ms. Clark to do in that moment in North Vancouver, Ms. Higgins said the Liberal Leader could have asked why she was not getting Ms. Higgins's vote, or what led to the moment. She might, Ms. Higgins said, have offered to have a Liberal staffer or the local candidate follow up. "She's in a store speaking to people. She can't really expect that everybody is going to agree and support her. Why would you think everybody you are going to see on the street is going to support you?"

Ms. Higgins said what was likely unusual about the situation is that she spoke up. "I don't think I was rude. I wasn't shouting."

Ms. Higgins says she is now laying low. "I am not a political person. I am just gardening and it's not going anywhere with me. It's got a life of its own. Like I said, it's not about me. It's about Christy Clark and the disappointment people have in her."