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Mackay: The Politics of Poor Discourse

August 11, 2011

The Ontario NDP's new Twitter account aims to highlight and expose supposed 'smears' against them.

When The Opposition launched a few months ago, one of the goals of the organization was to try and raise the level of discourse. Each writer was told to ask themselves if their article would work to educate the readers and stray from the tired partisan bickering that warps and engulfs other political/news websites. Many news publications, organizations and political parties across this country have willingly launched hyperbolic and sensationalist attacks on other publications, organizations, political parties as well as citizens. All it takes is a quick glance of the comments on most of Canada’s major news organizations websites and you can see what poor political discourse looks like. The comments on CBC’s articles appear to be especially inflammatory and unproductive.

This is to be expected on the internet though. As someone who advocates for continued online anonymity, it is easy to see how it can breed racist, ignorant and painful commentary when there is little to no threat of consequences. Even on Facebook and Twitter, where it is more common that people will use their real identity, you can see how poor dialogue between people can really bring down the quality of discussion. And that point is what led me to write this today.

The Ontario Provincial Election is roughly half a month away, yet it may as well have started in June, as every Party has been releasing ads, targeting voters on Facebook and Twitter as well as knocking on doors and making calls. As The Star pointed out yesterday, the campaign has turned particularly nasty online. And I am not referring to the anonymous commentators on the political news websites, though I am sure they are as disgusting as usual. The focus has been on both Facebook and Twitter, where anonymity virtually disappears and real people talk about real issues. Both Facebook and Twitter have become breeding grounds for civic engagement, political organization and massive online political discussions.

As someone who uses Facebook recreationally, I see posts on walls, pictures uploaded by friends and status updates that deal with politics quite frequently. The Ontario Progressive-Conservatives have even started taking out ads on Facebook as a nod to how powerful Facebook has become as a medium for political discussion and information.

With information though, comes misinformation, something that the Ontario New Democrats have begun aggressively trying to combat. This would not be a bad thing, if it were not for the fact that most of what they are combating is not, in fact, misinformation, and that the way they are combating it is by essentially blacklisting and displaying those who are speaking negatively about the ONDP. Recently, the ONDP have launched a twitter account, @StoptheSmears, which is following all of the Twitter accounts that have been posting alleged ‘smears’ against the Party.

Allow me to shed my bias for a moment, as I am no ONDP supporter and a handful of my friends appear on the list of ‘smearers,’ but most of the posts made by these Twitter users are not peddling misinformation. Many are posting either quotes or policies that the ONDP, at one point, has publicly supported, endorsed or opposed. Some recent tweets take aim at the ONDP for voting against The Clean Water Act (which they did), voting against the Pesticide Ban (which they did) and for scrapping the FIT Program (which their election platform says they will). Essentially, by retweeting every negative tweet posted by their detractors, the ONDP is doing more to highlight their own failings than to highlight the ‘smearers.’

The tagline used by their twitter account reads simply: Smearers. People who use Twitter to turn others off political engagement. How exactly does pointing out the record of the ONDP turn people off political engagement? These Twitter users are not attacking the ONDP MPPs or candidates personally; they are simply posting factual events. I have heard supporters of the ONDP say that these Twitter users, the ‘smearers,’ are using the information as intimidation tactics to put people off of getting involved. An interesting statement, especially when you consider that highlighting and listing these student’s accounts (as most of them are just that, students) can easily be seen as a form of intimidation in itself.

The only positive aspect of the StoptheSmears account is that they have begun responding to the ‘smearers’ in hopes of correcting them. Though they are only responding with the same canned line(s) directing them to read the ONDP’s website or election platform, it is a start. It would have been sadly ironic had they not bothered to raise the level of discourse while pointing out those who were lowering it.

Being in politics, and with it being election season, the ONDP should know and understand by now that their record will be touted, both positively and negatively, by news media, supporters and detractors in the lead up to October 6th. If creating an account to intimidate and shame a dozen or so Twitter users is a valuable use of the Party’s time, it speaks volumes about their organization’s focus and priorities for the upcoming election.

Raising the political discourse is a priority for The Opposition. We hope so far that you have enjoyed our articles and have felt we have done a good job steering clear of political partisan-speak and talking points. Seeing something like this, pulled by the Ontario New Democrats, pains us. To see correct political facts being labeled as ‘smears’ when there are much worse things being said that should be targeted and removed from the discussion, is atrocious. Hopefully, at some point, the Ontario New Democrats will realize how silly (and harmful) this is and drop it.

Most of all, let us hope that this article and subsequent posting of it on Twitter does not land us on their smear list. How ironic, and somewhat depressing, it would be to see that outcome.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2011 2:56 pm

    So far so good. This site remains regular reading for me! Facts are not smears, whereas personal attacks, slander, and falsehoods are smears.

  2. August 18, 2011 7:25 pm

    There is a difference between being critical and attacking. Critical rhetoric demands fact-based analysis on the issues while attacks are primarily personal, rarely factual and often have little or nothing to do with the actual issue at hand.

    I think there is a problem with our discourse when our understanding of the environment we discuss within is dominated by the idea that if we do not agree with someone we are being negative and unfairly attacking those we disagree with. This is not always the case as it IS possible to bring fair and balanced analysis to a discussion on the issues without attacking someone personally while still critically evaluating their argument(s).

    When it comes to political parties, candidates and their supporters, it is preferable to talk about the positives and what those parties will do for society. But it is just as valid to point out the deficiencies in the opposing side’s approach. Balance and fairness requires evaluation of all sides without demeaning one another but also without allowing a free pass on statements that have a loose relationship with facts or positions that lack a tangible relationship to generating public good.

    It is important to point this out and I am glad The Opposition has done that in this article.

  3. October 28, 2011 10:50 am

    Any writer that takes the time to research a subject as thoroughly as you have deserves to be commended. This article is appealing and very well-written. The first two sentences encouraged me to read more. I will most definitely do a link to http://theopposition.ca/2011/08/11/mackay-the-politics-of-poor-discourse/ on my site.

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