Trolled on the Campaign Trail: Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Authors: Chris Tenove and Heidi Tworek

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Social media are crucial for contemporary election campaigns, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated that trend. While online interactions during campaigns can be positive and productive, candidates also face insults, threats, hate speech, and other forms of incivility.

This report examines incivility on social media in the 2019 federal election campaign and beyond. It draws on an analysis of over one million tweets directed at candidates in the 2019 campaign, and on interviews with candidates, campaign staff, and elected officials.

 

 


Our major findings include:

    • About 40% of tweets at candidates were uncivil, and 16% of all tweets were abusive. Just 7% were positive.
    • Party leaders and other high-profile candidates received exponentially higher levels of incivility than most candidates. Candidates’ experiences thus varied significantly depending on their prominence before the campaign began.
    • Women and racialized candidates were not necessarily subjected to higher rates of incivility online, but the impact of the incivility and abuse they faced was often amplified by their lived experiences of threat, harassment, or marginalization offline.
    • Campaign teams often struggled to manage online incivility and abuse. Many felt that they lacked sufficient resources, training, or technical skills. In particular, they were unclear about the effectiveness and political consequences of taking actions like responding to or blocking abusive accounts, a problem made more difficult because they were often unsure who was behind the attacks.


Overall, we argue that pervasive incivility and frequent abuse threaten the security and wellbeing of public figures and their staff, undermine productive engagement between citizens and candidates during campaigns, exacerbate distrust and polarization in our politics, and present further barriers to political participation by people from under-represented groups.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

To address online incivility and abuse in Canadian politics requires a multi- pronged approach. Candidates, political parties, social media platforms, and policymakers can all take action.

      1. Candidates and campaign teams should:
        • Develop and implement proactive plans to manage abuse and incivility;
        • Publicly communicate their expectations for people who wish to engage them online;
        • Promote healthy discussions and online behaviour—including by their own supporters.
      1. Political parties should:
        • Provide appropriate training and resources so candidates and campaign teams can safely and effectively manage online abuse;
        • Provide support that addresses candidates’ diverse experiences and risks;
        • Establish guidelines for the online conduct of their candidates and staff.
      1. Social media platforms should:
        • Reduce deception via fake accounts, bots, and manipulated media;
        • Develop clearer and more reliable enforcement of terms of service;
        • Design social media platforms to better incentivize productive discussion;
        • Improve their transparency about patterns of abuse and their activities to address it.
      1. Policymakers should:
        • Clarify and improve the laws and police procedures for addressing online threats, defamation, and hate speech;
        • Promote greater transparency and more effective content moderation by social media companies;
        • Support groups that are combatting online incivility, abuse, and hate;
        • Coordinate with other governments and international bodies to address this global problem.

 

This report does not propose a quick fix for online incivility directed at candidates and elected officials. Instead, it offers an evidence-based assessment of the problem and options to address it. The actions we propose are just part of a broader effort to promote the meaningful and inclusive discussions that are necessary for a robust Canadian democracy.

 

IN THE NEWS

ABOUT THIS REPORT

This report was developed with support from a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant, and from UBC’s Language Sciences Initiative and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. The research that informed this report was supported by a grant from the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge (University of Ottawa and McGill University).

We thank Equal Voice for partnering with us in this endeavour.

Please see the report for our full acknowledgments.

Citation: Tenove, Chris, and Heidi Tworek (2020) Trolled on the Campaign Trail: Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics. Vancouver: Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia.

 

AUTHORS

CHRIS TENOVE is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Departments of Political Science and History at the University of British Columbia. He has published peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and policy reports on cyber-security threats, harmful speech, and disinformation. His last major report for the CSDI was Digital Threats to Democratic Elections: How Foreign Actors Use Digital Techniques to Undermine Democracy. Tenove previously worked as an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. For more details see www.tenove.com, or follow him on Twitter @cjtenove.

 

HEIDI TWOREK is Associate Professor in Public Policy and International History at the University of British Columbia. Tworek has advised and testified before governments around the world on social media, hate speech, and democracy. She is the award-winning author of News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (2019) as well as many journal articles and book chapters. Her writing has appeared in English and German in outlets such as Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. She is a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Canadian Global Affairs Institute as well as a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Her last report for CSDI was on democratic health communications during Covid-19. For more details see her UBC profile or follow her on Twitter @HeidiTworek.

 

RESEARCH TEAM

JORDAN BUFFIE is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. He has an MA in Political Science from the University of British Columbia (UBC).

TREVOR DELEY is a PhD candidate in e-business at the University of Ottawa. He has a BSc in Neuroscience, an MSc in Biology and Data Science, and worked as a software developer at IBM.

JASKIRAN GAKHAL recently graduated with an Honours in Political Science from UBC. She is now a JD candidate at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law.

GRACE LORE teaches at the University of Victoria. She provides research and communications support for not-for-profits, and has helped provincial and territorial legislators draft sexual harassment policies.

SONYA MANUEL is pursuing a Master of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University. She recently graduated with a double major in Political Science and Psychology from UBC.

VERONICA STOLBA recently graduated with a major in Political Science and a minor in Law and Society from UBC, where she was Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs of the Alma Mater Society.

 

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