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Is social media ruining political discourse at the municipal level?

Local leaders weigh in on the increasingly toxic dialogue online

It should come as no great surprise that social media can get ugly fast—just look at Twitter on any given day.

Sitting behind the anonymity of a computer screen, some people seem to feel more comfortable spouting angry sentiments or accusations than they ever would in person.

For local municipal politicians, the attacks can get personal.

Recently, Village of Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman took to Facebook, something he rarely does, to appeal for civility.

A job posting from the Village—which made the (apparently) egregious error of referring to the community as "Pembie" rather than Pemberton—had set some people off.

"It's not f**king "pembie," wrote one commenter. "It's F**KING PEMBERTON!"

Seeking to address the larger issue of incivility online, Richman wrote that while social media platforms have provided an "open place" to discuss important issues, they have also given some people a venue to express levels of "vitriol" and "harsh condemnation" he wouldn't "have believed possible."

"These platforms seem to have provided a space where some people feel the freedom to express poisonous, sometimes uninformed, and often crude remarks," wrote Richman.

Like other local leaders, Richman says that social media has had both positive and negative effects on local politics.

But perhaps the larger concern for him and others are the long-term implications of all the hate. Politics has long been a mostly thankless job, but with the frequency and depth of the online vitriol, it makes you wonder who would want to run for local office, knowing their name is going to be dragged through the mud whenever a tough call is made.

"For sure, it's going to make it harder to attract good candidates over the years," says Richman.

Feeling the sting

According to Nancy Wilhelm-Morden—who served a total of 17 years at the Whistler council table, including two terms as mayor—the tenor on social media has gotten worse over the past decade.

Wilhelm-Morden made decisions on numerous hot-button issues—including pay parking and housing—but the thing that seemed to really rile people up during her last term as mayor was a clumsy comment she made to CBC Radio.

During a substantive conversation about overtourism, Wilhelm-Morden griped about day visitors from the Lower Mainland who pack their own lunch and don't necessarily enjoy the "mountain culture we have."

The CBC ran with it, later writing a clickbaity story, "Whistler mayor not keen about day trippers from Lower Mainland," that played to people's perception of Whistler as an elitist community and ended up going viral.

Several months after leaving office, Wilhelm-Morden—who is still getting emails about the comment—appears to have tried to wipe the incident out of her mind.

She refers to it as her "BBDT comment" (Shorthand for "brown bag day-trippers").

"My comment about BBDT was ... (taken) out of context, and the flood—the absolute torrent—of vitriol was just unbelievable," says Wilhelm-Morden.

While her "BBDT comment" attracted the scorn of aggrieved Lower Mainlanders, Wilhelm-Morden also took plenty of heat locally over the years.

Locally, the go-to place for online political dialogue is Whistler Politico, a Facebook group with more than 1,500 members.

It's a forum where you can find substantive conversations about everything from federal politics to housing policy.

Yet Wilhelm-Morden says it was also a place where her positions were sometimes misrepresented and she was personally attacked to a troubling degree.

It got to "the point where I really felt like I was being bullied," says Wilhelm-Morden. "And I'm a lawyer—a trial lawyer. I have, by definition, a very thick skin."

Choosing not to let misinformation spread unabated, Wilhelm-Morden would sometimes intervene, reaching out to whomever was behind the post to explain her position and clear up the inaccuracies.

"And on occasion I'd ask them to apologize," says Wilhelm-Morden. "And, actually, sometimes they did—and sometimes they apologized publicly.

"It was only in the most egregious circumstances—where I did all that and it carried on—that I would go to the moderator."

Facebook, she explains, seems to have a troubling disinhibiting quality for some.

"These were people who I knew, and who would never, in a million years, say to my face what they would say on Facebook," says Wilhelm-Morden.

Wilhelm-Morden is clear that, on balance, serving the community was a joy and an honour.

But she also adds that that the negativity online—the "vitriol" that followed certain decisions—"certainly was a factor" in her decision not to run for a third term as mayor in the 2018 municipal election, which was won by acclamation by Jack Crompton.

"When you put yourself out there for an elected position, you know you are going to be subject to criticism, and that's fine; that's part of the role and position," says Wilhelm-Morden. "But when the criticism goes beyond being helpful and becomes abusive, that's just not part of the job."

Richman voices a similar sentiment. "I stopped looking at certain forums, because I find that the commentary has become more poisonous at certain times," he says. "I just find it's becoming worse. It's almost like when some people see hurtful stuff, it justifies, or makes it easier for them to do the same."

There are also profound implications for staff, whose hands are tied when it comes to intervening, he adds.

"It seems like often that misinformation is put on certain forums and it gets spread around as fact, and it causes a whole different level of conversation," says Richman.

Navigating social media is a challenge for leaders around the province.

Just last year, the mayor of Victoria chose to stop using Facebook, saying that it had become a "polarized echo chamber" that "peddles outrage." And in 2017, former Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Reed stopped making public appearances and briefly deleted it following credible threats to her personal safety.

But Union of British Columbia Municipalities president and current City of Kamloops Councillor Arjun Singh is reluctant to blame social media at large, saying that it only "amplifies" the views of the bad actors and can be used to positive effect by some leaders.

Singh also hasn't seen evidence that it is resulting in a dearth of candidates running for municipal politics across the province.

What's important is for people to recognize that people go into local politics with the desire to make their communities better places.

"We think our elected people deserve the respect and acknowledgement that's expected," he says.

But has anything really changed?

It would be easy to see this phenomenon as an example of the corrosive effects of technology on our lives.

And many social media users have become turned off political debate on online, choosing to curate their feeds to avoid it altogether.

A 2016 study of U.S. adults from the Pew Research Center found that while some enjoy the opportunities for debate afforded by social media, many more express frustration and resignation at the tone and content of social media platforms.

It found that about half of users feel political conversations are angrier, less respectful, and less civil compared to other places where people might discuss politics.

"Many users view the tone of political discussions on social media as uniquely angry and disrespectful—although a sizeable share feels that these discussions simply reflect the broader political climate," it concludes.

According to David Black, a communications theorist and historian at Royal Roads University who endorses the latter view, the handwringing is largely misguided.

Social media, he explains, is only giving a platform to an element of the public that has always been there.

"I'm not endorsing this behaviour—I think it's abhorrent," says Black. "But I don't know if we can civilize them to the dream of rational public dialogue and public spirited conversation."

The public conversation, he points out, is no longer mediated to the same degree as it once was by traditional forms of mass communication, like television and newspapers, which means that society is going to have to adjust to a "new normal."

"To kind of, in a blanket way, say online discourse is awful and is destroying politics is a misreading of it," says Black. "Ugliness in politics has always been there ... It's the price we pay for the fact that we haven't turned our politics to a dictator or an all-powerful state."

In other words, it's not that people are worse; it's that everyone now has a platform that didn't exist before.

At its best, social media can help "close the gap" between politicians and the public, something that can be healthy in an era where the public increasingly distrusts its institutions, says Black.

"However, if narrowing that gap doesn't lead to a humanizing of politics and a more mutual understanding between citizens and the politicians, then I think politicians need to move very carefully."

Ironically, Black says the rise of social media should encourage politicians to seek face-to-face opportunities to dialogue with their constituents.

"Social media, as it relates to politics, should remind us how important face-to-face contact (between) our political leaders and the voter is," he says.

A brand new world

Whistler's new mayor, Jack Crompton, has taken a cautious approach to social media.

You may see him post the occasional news bulletin from the municipality, but he doesn't get into the weeds.

In fact, he's not sure how effective that would even be.

"I participate in public dialogue, but correcting every single piece of misinformation on the internet is not, frankly, something we have the capacity to do," says Crompton.

Like Wilhelm-Morden, Crompton—less than a year into his term as mayor—already knows what it feels like to be at the centre of a public relations firestorm.

Last December, the Resort Municipality of Whistler was in full-blown crisis mode, after a letter it sent to 20 oil and gas companies—calling on them to take financial responsibility for "climate-related harm" (while simultaneously boasting about 3 million people who visit the resort annually) went viral.

Crompton's inbox was flooded with irate messages.

"There was some really insulting, destructive, personal messages sent my way," says Crompton. "That said, even in the midst of such a visceral incident, the majority of it was focused on people debating the issue."

Crompton added that he thinks the tone of online dialogue is improving.

"I find that people are becoming more respectful and there is less anonymity on the internet," says Crompton. "Social media companies are working to improve platforms so that trolling and anonymity is limited, and respectful dialogue is promoted."

Moreover, Crompton points out that the bulk of the comments on forums like Whistler Politico are healthy and useful to him as a leader.

"I want my decisions to be challenged, so that I can gain the insights of our broader community," says Crompton. "I make a conscious (effort) to think the best of the person on the other side of the conversation—until they show me otherwise. And even then, I think there is value in thinking the best of the other person."