John Penner, a director at StrategyCorp, was previously the deputy chief of staff for the minister of finance under the Harper Government and has been involved in numerous Conservative campaigns. Andrew Steele, vice-president at StrategyCorp, previously worked in war rooms for the Liberal Party of Canada.
The first week of the federal election campaign saw five nominated candidates resign, compared with two in the first week of the 2015 contest. A sixth candidate resigned just days before the election was called. This wasn’t a fluke but the result of how people engage with each other on social media, changing attitudes toward past statements and fundamental advances in internet search techniques.
A growing intolerance for intolerance is ending the “statute of limitations,” where a single off-colour joke from an aspiring politician, told long ago and outside of a pattern of such behaviour, was not a disqualifying factor. How did we end up here?
A Cornell University study reported people’s emotions mimicked their emotional content of their Facebook feed, while another academic found “partisan media may drive online information sharing by generating anger in its audience.” Combine these emotional contagions with social-media platforms that allow one to transmit an idea before it is even fully formed, and you see how easy it is for an aspiring politician to make angry statements on unsavoury topics not in keeping with their character.
Additionally, the social-media monitoring software platforms that companies use to measure consumer sentiment are widely available and easily accessible by media, rival parties or interest groups. These tools don’t just search but constantly catalogue and index years of social-media posts, including the offhand comments of an aspiring politician’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, even ones that were recently deleted.
To cope, most parties adopted some form of green-light process where an internal committee vets candidates for electability. Recruiting and vetting 338 candidates is a herculean task with trade-offs: Too tight of a leash on local riding association decision-making invites procedural criticism and alienates local volunteers or voters, while a hands-off approach results in nominated candidates with past vulnerabilities.
Having a fully “clean” set of candidates with no vulnerabilities is impossible. The Liberals gained the most traction in the first week of the campaign highlighting a series of Conservatives candidates’ socially conservative statements, seeking to paint the CPC as outside mainstream values. The Liberals are also the most insulated against candidate problems with 160 prevetted incumbents running again, and a centrist ideological position that tends to attract fewer people with views outside the political norms.
But all political parties have faced challenges: A Green resigned for comments regarding Muslims, a Liberal for anti-Semitic remarks, a New Democrat for “problematic” posts and a People’s Party candidate for calling on Maxime Bernier to denounce “human garbage” in their party.
All the political parties were seeking to put their opponents’ campaigns on the wrong footing right out of the gate. Yet, the chaos of candidate attacks and resignations in the first week risks a “pox on all your houses” response from voters that increases cynicism about politicians generally, and lowers voter engagement and turnout in this election specifically. The latest public opinion polling shows it hasn’t resulted in any movement in public support. Both the Conservatives and Liberals are essentially tied in the mid-30-per-cent range.
We haven’t seen the end of this. The parties may keep their best attacks until after the candidate deadline on Sep. 30. In October, parties can no longer replace a nominee on the ballot with Elections Canada. A resignation means conceding the riding, so expect parties to mount a vigorous defence of outrageous statements if they are made by candidates in winnable ridings.
Political parties need to take care that very minor misstatements made years before don’t result in laying the bar for public office so high, only those who failed to engage in any controversial discourse need apply. This also can’t mean carte blanche defence of odious characters that should not hold public office. It is a careful balancing act with no simple answers.
The biggest burden lies with candidates and normal citizens. We were quite naive about social media, particularly in its early years. If someone is aspiring to run for public office one day, do yourself a favour and delete your Facebook and Twitter accounts today, your footprint will become much more faint after a year or two. Unless you only used your accounts to like cat photos, a disqualifying remark could be lurking even in the most gentle soul’s long-forgotten feed. Your Facebook feed is not a private journal, it is a public record that can be used against you.
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