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City councillor’s Facebook group back in the news after hundreds of users banned for emoji use

Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan’s often-criticized online conduct is back in the news after his Valley East Today Facebook page banned hundreds of people for using the ‘crying laughing’ emoji in ways the city councillor calls bullying

Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan’s Valley East Today Facebook group created a firestorm of online controversy (and more than a few memes) this week, after dozens and dozens of people were banned for what the city councillor said was inappropriate use of the ‘crying laughing’ emoji.

So far, more than 200 members of the Facebook group — which is operated by Kirwan and his wife, Valerie — have been blocked for what he calls “bullying.”

Over the weekend, Kirwan posted a message to the Facebook page criticizing members who were “misusing” the ‘crying laughing’ emoji in posts. He said in his message most of the people are using the emoji are trying to mock people, to make people feel less than, or to frustrate people with a different opinion. 

If you are unfamiliar with the symbol, it is a traditional yellow smiley face, with its eyes closed while tears stream down its face.

“It is being used as a weapon by trolls or people who are simply in the group to cause dissension or disturbances,” Kirwan wrote.

The internet being what it is, blocking group members for using the emoji resulted in a backlash from a number of commenters on the page.

For example, one member commented: (Sic)“Of all the things to police you’re policing users emoji choices ..... Why not just put in big bold letters in the group rules no personal expression allowed unless preapproved by an admin because that’s pretty much the point you’re at now with your rules.”

Others, though, defended Kirwan’s reaction to group members’ use of the emoji in question.

A post from another group member reads, “I’m on the fence on this one. But I do agree. I have seen the laughing emoji on posts about death, injury and personal loss. That one trigger might really affect someone. Look, it’s Facebook, I get it, but you may not know what someone else is going through in their personal life and that one ‘lack of respect’ to a post can really send someone over the edge. Is it worth it? Why intentionally try and hurt someone. There is a time and a ‘post’ for the laughing emoji.”

Kirwan’s own social media use has drawn ire not only from disgruntled members of his Facebook page, but the province’s integrity commissioner, as well.

In 2019, Kirwan found himself at the centre of a report filed by the integrity commissioner after a number of complaints were filed against the city councillor. Many of those complaints were directly related to the Valley East Facebook page, and accused the councillor of abusing and harassing members of the community if they disagreed with  him.

“He has more than crossed the line drawn by the provisions in the Code and the Code of Ethics,” said Robert Swayze in his report. “He appears too often to be unable to enter into professional debate with anyone who disagrees with him, but rather prefers personal attacks.”

And, while it was recommended by the integrity commissioner that city council reprimand Kirwan for crossing the line in the code of conduct for members of council and local boards and the code of ethics, it was ultimately ruled Kirwan is entitled to operate the Facebook page even if his knowledge acquired as a councillor assists in that task. 

That being said, Kirwan remains adamant that while people have a right to their opinion, on the Valley East Facebook site, members are required to keep their posts respectful and fact-based.

“We try and make it safe, but we have no qualms about saying, if you’re not going to follow the rules, you’re gone,” he said. “People think Facebook is a free-for-all. Social media is among the best inventions, but it’s also one of the worst.”

The city councillor added that he has had enough of people belittling other members simply by using that particular emoji, Kirwan said. Of the 18,000 members of the Valley East Facebook page, more than 1,200 people have been blocked over the years.

“We’re not giving you three strikes. I think we have a serious problem in our society today. This is bullying. Hopefully, we’ll get some civility back, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Moderating comments on the page is a 24-hour job, Kirwan said. And the vast majority of Valley East members know and respect the rules of the Facebook group. That’s why the Kirwans have no plans to shut down the page.

“Out of the 18,000 people on the site, there are maybe 250 who don’t know how to behave civilly,” Kirwan said. “I would never let a small percentage of people take away the benefit for the thousands of other people who use the page.”

Kirwan said he understands there’s a lot of anger and confusion, but he is adamant that anything put on the Valley East Facebook page is something posters should feel comfortable saying in front of a high school class.

“If I had a student who got up in front of the class and asked a very serious question, and another student laughed at that student, I would remove the kid from the class. I wouldn’t have tolerated that,” he said.

Kirwan said there are three more deaths linked to COVID-19, the pandemic as a whole, and city council is in the budget process, but the major story on his site is the laughing emoji.

“There are more important things to be talking about,” Kirwan said.