Amanda Clarke is an assistant professor at Carleton University's School of Public Policy and Administration. You can find her on Twitter at @ae_clarke; Elizabeth Dubois is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute and SSHRC doctoral fellow, on Twitter @lizdubois.
"It is important to vaccinate your children. Download the FREE ImmunizeCA App"
"Enduring love is in the air at Pioneer #ValentinesDay Tea, the couple on my right has been married for 67 years!"
These are three tweets you'll receive if you follow the Twitter account of Rona Ambrose, MP for Edmonton-Spruce Grove and federal Minister of Health. But you won't get these tweets in French, and Canada's Official Language Commissioner has a problem with that.
Reacting to complaints about the dominance of English-language tweets issued by former foreign affairs minister John Baird and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, the Commissioner decreed that ministers must tweet equally in French and English when acting in their official capacity.
What this means exactly won't be clear until the Commissioner's full report is made public. The key line appears to be "in their official capacity", which leads to the question: Are ministers' Twitter accounts "official" departmental communications, representing the "voice" of the public sector departments these ministers lead? If yes, then of course their tweets need to be bilingual. Legally, this is required under Canada's Official Languages Act. Bilingualism of official government communications is not, and should not, be up for debate here.
If ministers' Twitter accounts do not represent the official voice of government departments, but are instead a vehicle for the partisan, personal and professional communications of the MP, then the case is similarly straightforward. While there are many reasons an MP might choose to tweet in both official languages they're not legally obliged to do so.
But this is where things get complicated. Ms. Ambrose's tweets are neither strictly ministerial nor extra-ministerial. When Ms. Ambrose's tweet promotes a departmental public health initiative (and links to the departmental website), she's wearing her "Minister of Health" hat. When she congratulates her Conservative colleagues on their latest promotion, she's wearing her "partisan politician" hat. And when she tweets about an adorable elderly couple in love, she's wearing her "local constituency politician/nice person you want to vote for" hat.
Examining how Ms. Ambrose and her ministerial colleagues describe themselves in their Twitter bios, we similarly see these multiple hats at play. All but five mention their ministerial portfolio along with their local riding. Many also mention their partisan political affiliation.
Further, Twitter accounts and the social and political capital they generate are permanently linked to the politician that runs the account (following them from their pre-political lives, through elections, through various ministerial portfolios and into life after politics) but impermanently tied to the different stages of a politician's career, or the hats they may wear at any given time in their lives.
So if on Twitter you're a minister, an elected representative and a partisan all at once, which language rules apply to your account?
Current interpretations of the Commissioner's ruling suggest that as long as the account is used to share any content related to their ministerial posting (a minister discussing his role negotiating a trade deal, a minister announcing a new tax credit), the entire account must be bilingual.
What if that same minister does not comfortably speak English, and is MP for a unilingual Francophone riding? Once this MP places their "local constituency politician" hat on, they may find their Twitter account – now populated with English text of little use to their French constituents, and bogged down by time-consuming translation processes – loses its power as a platform for direct and personalized interactions with those they represent. The much-reviled canned, pre-planned tweets penned by staffers may become a necessary evil. In effect, by subjecting the entire account to rules that are rightfully applied to departmental communications, you cut off Twitter's potency as a platform for improving representative-constituent communications. This opportunity for spontaneous, networked, fluid interaction is one of the reasons we're supposed to be excited about social media's role in contemporary democracy.
The Official Languages Commissioner should adopt a hybrid approach, which acknowledges that politicians do and should wear multiple hats when using social media.
What might this hybrid approach look like in practice? The rules could dictate that tweets related to a minister's portfolio must be translated, while tweets that relate to a minister's role as an MP and party faithful could be issued in the language of their choice. Yes, the line between these tweets will not always be clear, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to draw it.
This approach takes into account the reality of the networked communications landscape in which MPs operate, while also acknowledging (as the Commissioner rightfully has) that departmental communications must remain accessible regardless of whether you speak English or French. Perhaps the Commissioner will advance these options in his report. But if the current reading of his ruling stands, it looks like we might simply be forcing ministers to trade in their many hats for a single chapeau. The costs of such a ruling should not be overlooked.