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Illustration by Bryan Gee

Chris Tenove is a postdoctoral research fellow in political science at the University of British Columbia. Together with Heidi Tworek, an associate professor in public policy and international history at UBC, he wrote the report Trolled on the Campaign Trail: Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics, which was published this week by UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Justin Trudeau and the other national party leaders collectively received almost 280,000 uncivil tweets during the 2019 election campaign, ranging from the dismissive and snide to the hateful or threatening. I, for my sins, have read thousands of them as part of my research on online hate and harassment. Now, when I see someone scowling and jabbing at their phone as they wait in line, I wince and think about who might be on the receiving end.

After submerging myself in that angry wall of noise, I’ve become more keenly aware of the resentments and bigotries that threaten our political conversations and more concerned about the voices that might be shouted out of the room. The research suggests that online incivility and abuse can make democratic participation more difficult for those who want to run, those who work for them and those who simply want to engage in a civil manner.

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Working with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and several other Canadian universities, I investigated the toxic messages that candidates face and their impact. To do that, we analyzed more than one million tweets directed at candidates during the last two months of the 2019 campaign. We also interviewed 31 candidates and campaign staff and another dozen politicians and staff who have faced significant online abuse in federal, provincial or municipal politics.

One challenge was determining how to categorize problematic messages. We drew on insights from other publications and our diverse team of undergraduate researchers, but also from candidates themselves. In cafés, constituency offices and video chats, I put forward a set of increasingly offensive messages, from “Poor little misguided child” to profanity-laced insults. An eavesdropper might have wondered why I wasn’t slapped across the face. But interviewees calmly explained what crossed the line for them.

With our categories established, we developed a machine-learning model to analyze the tweets. We found that about 16 per cent were what we called “abusive.” These were highly insulting or, in rare cases, threatening toward individuals or hateful toward social groups. Examples include “Don’t forget to take you antidepressants pills bitch.” A further 24 per cent of all tweets at candidates were “uncivil,” such as “How I hate thee.”

Just 7 per cent of the tweets were positive. Election Twitter is not a happy place.

A few high-profile candidates faced the majority of this vitriol. More than two-thirds of all incivility and abuse was directed at just six individuals: the leaders of five national parties and cabinet minister Catherine McKenna, a prominent Twitter user whose harassment online and offline is well-known. They faced hundreds of toxic tweets a day – in Mr. Trudeau’s case, thousands. The majority of candidates received at most a few dozen hostile tweets over the course of the election.

Threats of violence are rare but appear to be increasing. For instance, the Sûreté du Québec received about 300 reports of online threats made against politicians between March and September this year, a 450-per-cent increase over the same period last year. While some threats are clear, many are ambiguous, and our interviewees told us they often didn’t know whether or when to involve the police.

Most people told us they faced at least as much incivility and abuse on Facebook as on Twitter – and that Facebook is a more important tool for campaigning. However, it is impossible for researchers to do large-scale studies of Facebook comments because the platform does not give researchers access to its application programming interfaces, leaving a critical gap in our understanding.

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Why is there so much incivility on social media? One reason is that, like slot machines, social media messages ring the bells of intense emotions – anger and revulsion, but sometimes admiration or delight – and offer the immediate ability to signal our condemnation or support. And so QAnon, but also #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, come to broad awareness.

Another reason is it’s easy to get away with being a jerk online. One of the most common complaints we heard from candidates and elected officials was that while politicians are highly visible and held responsible for what they say, their online trolls face no consequences. One MP likened online trolls to adults who go out on Halloween wearing scary masks: Many behave like idiots because they can get away with it.

Not all candidates experienced online abuse as a major problem, but most people we spoke to did struggle with the emotional strain and wasted time caused by even small volumes of incivility and abuse.

Of course, animosity toward politicians is not new. Indeed, one of the iconic images of Canadian politics came in 1968 when Pierre Trudeau stood his ground while watching the St. Jean Baptiste parade as angry separatists shouted and threw bottles in his direction.

However, in the era before social media, most negativity came in the form of angry letters and phone calls. Abuse and incivility were not launched into a digital space where they could be liked, retweeted or screenshot and posted elsewhere.

A first-time candidate explained that if he encountered homophobia or other insults when knocking on doors, he could just walk away and make a note not to return to that residence. But online attacks could come at any time.

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Political staff, who often play a major role in managing candidates' social media accounts, are also affected. One communication officer explained how he would do a final cleanup of toxic remarks on Twitter or Facebook just before he went to bed at night, only to wake the next morning to face a new onslaught. Some claimed this work poses an occupational health hazard.

Online attacks also undermine candidates' ability and willingness to use social media to engage members of the public. A campaign manager who has worked with federal, provincial and municipal candidates noted that, rather than engage online and face potential abuse, she advises politicians to use social media like a billboard: Put content up and walk away.

While online incivility and abuse have a widespread negative impact on our democratic conversations, their effects are not experienced equally. In fact, those who have difficulty understanding systemic sexism and racism – particularly those who are, like me, white men – could learn a lot from reading hundreds of hostile tweets and speaking to several dozen women and racialized individuals who face them.

Our research did not find that a candidate who was a woman or non-white was likely to get a higher proportion of abusive or uncivil comments on Twitter. However, female, racialized, Indigenous and 2SLGBTQ+ candidates often received messages with content that attacked their identities. Reviewing those messages, I got the sense that their authors were primarily motivated by partisan animosity. But when they lashed out, the language of insult and denigration they turned to might be infused with sexism, racism or homophobia. High-profile female and racialized candidates appear to come in for particular abuse – as if they were being made an example of.

This content often echoed prejudices and threats that some types of people face offline. After all, there are white supremacist and other hate groups that organize and recruit online, then occasionally commit acts of violence.

Taken together, the casual attacks on people’s identities, the targeting of prominent women and racialized individuals, and the context of past and possibly future discrimination and violence combine to create a more hostile environment for candidates who are not male and white. And women and some of the other targeted social groups also happen to be underrepresented in Parliament.

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As I have scrolled through our database of uncivil and abusive tweets, I’ve become more aware of the volatile emotions and prejudices that our democratic culture and institutions need to manage. The risks become even clearer as we watch the scorched-earth election to the south and contemplate the violence that may erupt in the streets.

The situation is by no means hopeless, and our report puts forward many actions that could be taken. For instance, political parties could provide better training and resources for candidates and campaign teams, particularly those who are underresourced or more likely to face serious abuse. Social media platforms could introduce design changes to encourage productive discussions. Governments could lean on social media companies to be more transparent, so researchers can better evaluate the extent of abuse and attempts to reduce it. Policy makers and police could further clarify the laws and procedures for addressing online threats, defamation and hate speech.

Citizens, too, have a role to play. They can call out the abuse they see online, particularly when it comes from their own political camp. They can commit to showing empathy and support to those who surrender their privacy and peace of mind by seeking office. And they can take a deep, calming breath before hitting “post.”

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