Twitter politics in Toronto byelection


As I find myself reminding people somewhat frequently, Twitter is not real life.  If the tone and tenor of Twitter discourse did mirror that of the real world, we’d be in trouble.  Yet still, the media and society attempt to extract a picture of one’s life from out-of-context tweets, which rarely, if ever, illustrate the complexity of a person’s existence.

In politics, this contributes to the tired and repetitive “unearthed tweets show…” stories in every election imaginable.  Byelections are no exception, evidently, with two duelling tweets from the Conservative and Liberal candidates in the ongoing Toronto Centre byelection emerging Friday, fuelling outrage from those on both the left and right.

“Leslyn Lewis is legit black… Kamala Harris is Trans-racial,” Conservative candidate Julius Tiangson said in a now-deleted Aug. 13 tweet.  “Harris is Trans-racial (a racial fluidity concept that identifies oneself to a particular usefulness…)!

The tweet was shared by Liberal MP Greg Fergus, who is black, along with a call for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole to fire Tiangson because “no party gets to decide one’s Blackness.”

Not long after, Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen shared a tweet from the riding’s Liberal candidate, Marci Ien, raising questions about the official narrative about the 9/11 attacks.

“Watching “Loose Change 9-11: An American Coup,’” Ien wrote in the 2011 tweet.  “Really makes you think about what really happened on September 11, 2001.”

The documentary in question calls 9/11 a “false flag” operation backed by the United States government.  Noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was the executive producer of one version of the film.

Ien said she just watched a bit of it on YouTube but doesn’t accept its thesis.

“I’ve always been so saddened by the tragic losses caused by Al Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11, which I’ve covered a lot over the years,” Ien said in response to the controversy.  “I’ve spoken often with the families of 9/11 victims and shared their stories as a broadcaster – and I’ll also do everything I can as an MP to help keep Canadians safe from all such tragedies.”

Tiangson said he “won’t let the Liberals distract voters here from the many ethical scandals surrounding the government” and noted he was happy to see Kamala Harris running for vice-president.

There was some media coverage of this, but for the most part the story is a flash in the pan, with neither party ditching their candidate despite the calls from their opponents to do so.

The controversy’s short-lived nature lends credence to the idea that few people actually care about these sorts of stories, outside of the bubbles surrounding the media and party loyalists that is.

While tweets can sometimes justify asking questions about what a particular person thinks in relation to a past position, the outrage and mobbing are never conducive to real dialogue.

With Ien, for example, the issue is not that she tweeted about her view on 9/11, but rather what she actually thinks about the subject.  As she denies being a truther, people can move on.

Having been through the Twitter mobbing myself on a couple of occasions – most prominently during my 2018 run for office – I can say it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience.  More importantly, it’s not a constructive one, in politics or in life.

Someone’s past tweets are a part of their life, and if they raise questions, the media and voters can and should ask those questions.  But viewing these tweets, in isolation, as a sort of smoking gun reduces people to two-dimensional caricatures of themselves, and moreover reflects a distorted view of how people communicate.

Flippant comments that would historically be said in private between friends are now shared publicly on social media.  People say things they don’t mean, or say things they mean in an ill-conceived way: neither inherently makes someone unfit for office, let alone a bad person.  They do make people human, however.

In politics, the natural answer to this is to only seek out candidates who are either so boring they’ve never expressed an opinion or told a joke in their lives, or, alternatively, people so eager to be in politics they’ve masked and concealed parts of themselves to get there.  I fail to see how either of these should be desired over the alternative, which is simply taking a nuanced, and even forgiving, approach whenever an old comment or two resurfaces.

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

More from Andrew Lawton.     @andrewlawton

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