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Under attack online, some local politicians recoil from public life

A councillor announces plans to leave civic politics due to unrelenting attacks against her on social media. A mayor temporarily withdraws from public life following a personal threat and months of online abuse.
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A councillor announces plans to leave civic politics due to unrelenting attacks against her on social media.

A mayor temporarily withdraws from public life following a personal threat and months of online abuse.

A second mayor quits Facebook, calling it a toxic echo chamber that peddles fear and outrage.

In the four years since the last municipal election, the uncivil discourse on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms has taken a toll on local governments across B.C.

Some people have decided to leave public service for good rather than subject themselves and their families to more invective. Others choose never to enter the fray in the first place, having witnessed the anonymous assaults on current mayors and councillors.

“If I was thinking about running now for the first time, I wouldn’t do it,” said Sooke Coun. Kerrie Reay. “It’s out of control.

“For the future … it’s going to be a different type of politician that sits at the municipal council tables, because good people will not run and those that are good are going to say: ‘Nope, I’m done. I’m not going to put up with this crap anymore.’ ”

Reay counts herself among the latter group. She topped the polls in 2014, but announced last year that she would not seek re-election this fall due to sustained online bullying.

“It was destroying my life,” she said. “I didn’t sleep. I’d wake up at four in the morning. And I couldn’t pull it back. Social media was like this snowball that just picked up speed.”

Reay said it’s no coincidence, either, that most of the recent attacks have been against female politicians. A few months after Reay spoke out in 2017, Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read curtailed her public appearances after learning of a personal threat against her following months of online abuse.

“I think there is sexism,” Reay said. “All of us that have really had a tough time are strong women — whether you agree with our politics or not. A lot of it becomes personal.”

Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay, Victoria Coun. Margaret Lucas and Metchosin Mayor John Ranns all said they have no doubt the level of vitriol on social media is deterring good people from running for local government.

“Absolutely [it is], when your life is under that level of a microscope and nothing seems to be sacred,” McKay said.

“Social media is a wonderful thing if it’s used constructively, and, unfortunately, it isn’t always used constructively,” Lucas said. “We know that there are people who, for some reason or another, have an awful lot of anger and it certainly comes out.”

“Back in the day, people used to come to council and they would get up and tear a strip off you,” Ranns said. “That’s OK. It’s all done in public. Sometimes it got a little heated but at least you had to have something verifiable to talk about, whereas now, the craziest stuff is said.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, whose savvy use of social media helped propel her to the mayor’s office four years ago, made national headlines in March when she announced she was giving up her Facebook account, saying it had become a toxic echo chamber.

Helps maintains social media can be helpful, but she’s uncertain if the positives outweigh the negatives.

“I think the upsides of social media are the ability to share information,” she said.

“The downsides are it’s really, I would say, a threat to democracy and the ability to have face-to-face conversations about important issues.”

While Helps still uses Instagram, trolls have attacked her there, too. When she posted a photo of a sunset, some reacted with comments so offensive, Helps’ campaign used them in a fundraising appeal citing the hate as an example of what they were up against.

Kamloops Coun. Arjun Singh, president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, acknowledged the “double-edged” aspect of social media. “I personally have a lot of benefit [from] talking to my community through social media. I get a lot of feedback that’s quite positive,” he said. “But there is a huge problem in that people sometimes [use] social media as a way to be much more nasty and much more mean-spirited.”

Singh said UBCM is working with the province and others to deal with the issue, in part, by promoting responsible conduct by politicians and encouraging them to model that behaviour for the public. “There’s a really good way of getting your point across to a local elected official, and being a jerk and being nasty really isn’t one of those ways,” Singh said.

If the current campaign is any indication, there’s still a lot of work to do. Reports are surfacing of fake Facebook pages and vicious personal attacks against candidates.

View Royal Mayor David Screech, who was acclaimed to a new term, said some of the anonymously created Facebook pages slamming candidates such as Helps are akin to election tampering.

“It’s not acceptable under the election rules to deliver leaflets anonymously. I don’t see why it should be any different on social media,” Screech said.

“I find it really troubling and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that it’s a lot of that type of thing that led to Donald Trump getting elected. I know that’s a bit of a reach but it’s just on a smaller, local scale.”

— with a file from The Canadian Press

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