Politicians need boundaries when dealing with social media harassment

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Those who go into politics may surrender some of private life’s comforts, but that doesn’t mean public service should be a free-for-all.

Especially when it comes to elected officials’ families.

It’s hard to find civility on social media, however, where a St. Catherines man attempted to spark a Christmas Day flash mob at Progressive Conservative MPP Sam Oosterhoff’s parents’ house.

“This Christmas, let’s protest @samoosterhoff and his bigot, misogynistic and homophobic personality & upbringing,” wrote Rob Gill on Twitter.  “Let’s protest at his parents (sic) home at (redacted).  Or give them a call at (redacted).”

Included in the original tweet, which has since been deleted, were the Oosterhoff family’s home address and phone number.

The second-term MPP called police upon seeing the tweet, citing concern for his family’s safety.  The OPP says it was unsuccessful at reaching Gill by phone, so instead stopped in on him to “caution (him) regarding sharing personal information on social media which could be perceived as harassing.”

Gill himself tweeted about the episode, lauding the officer as “professional and friendly” while labeling Oosterhoff’s call to the police “pathetic” and meant to intimidate.

From a PR perspective, there’s no right answer for Oosterhoff to deal with someone being so demonstrably irrational.  Were he to call Gill himself, he’d be similarly accused of trying to intimidate.  His way put it to the OPP to decide what the prudent course of action would be.

It sounds as though that’s exactly what happened.  The police investigated, had a courteous and professional conversation with the party involved, and moved on without laying any charges.  I’m unclear on how this could have unfolded in any better way, except for if Gill had never taken aim at the Oosterhoffs in the first place.

It may be difficult to find the line between everyday criticism of politicians and that which warrants police intervention, but trying to bring hordes of protesters to an MPP’s family’s house seems to be pretty squarely in the latter column.

We see an example of the grayer area in a CBC story last week about Elsbeth Dodman, a 30-year old autism advocate whose repeated phone calls to Premier Doug Ford’s cellphone got her a call from the OPP.

While it may sound heavy-handed, this is buried in the sympathetic CBC story about the woman.

“Dodman admitted she was persistent, sometimes making up to eight calls at a time, but said she was never aggressive, impolite or threatening.”

Ford’s cell number is the worst-kept secret in Ontario given the frequency with which the premier asks those in need to call him directly.  It’s difficult to imagine how he could actually deliver any help if someone is incessantly clogging up his phone line.

Even so, Dodman was never told not to call Ford’s office, nor even barred from dialing his cell phone.  She was simply asked to send a text or leave a voicemail rather than calling back-to-back.  This is a reasonable request, even if people are uncomfortable with police officers making it.

Though they work for the public, politicians need to set up boundaries when their personal lives are being targeted or their ability to serve the public is being impeded.

This isn’t partisan on my part.  I was highly critical, for the same reason, when Black Lives Matter protesters camped out in front of then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s house in 2016.

There is no set-in-stone protocol on these issues.  I wouldn’t have looked forward to dealing with them had I been successful in my bid for public office last year.

The best way I’ve seen social media harassment dealt with is by federal Conservative MP Michele Rempel, who has published a flowchart on how she manages engagement.  In a nutshell, she maintains that she’ll report anything threatening to police, and that anyone wishing to engage officially should contact her through official channels.  Call or email her office rather than tweeting her, in other words.

Of course all of this would be moot if people wouldn’t push the envelope so far beyond legitimate policy criticisms when it comes to politicians, who admittedly need to place most barbs in the “grow a thick skin” camp.

I may have high hopes for 2019, but I’m not betting on a return of civility to politics.

Just like “the customer is always right” has been thoroughly debunked, “the constituent is always right” makes no more sense.  You can’t meet abuse in the middle, and families must remain off limits.

Photo Credit: Hamilton Spectator

Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.

More from Andrew Lawton.     @andrewlawton

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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