With social media already proving a problematic factor in local political discourse, it’s anticipated that things will get even murkier as the Oct. 24 municipal election date approaches.
A few local examples of murky messaging and misinformation have already begun cropping up.
Last month, Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini was accused of spreading misinformation about the city’s homelessness crisis though a video posted to YouTube.
Also featuring mayoral candidate Bob Johnston and a homeless man who went by the pseudonym “Roger,” the trio made numerous claims in the video which were all refuted by city administration when questioned by Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc during a city council meeting.
Vagnini rejected the idea he was spreading misinformation, has kept the video online and insisted that his information was accurate. As of mid-day Monday, the video had 2,791 views.
Some of the claims in the video considered false included two frozen bodies being pulled out of downtown tents a few weeks prior, a woman freezing to death in a tent outside of Tom Davies Square and that there had been a recent double stabbing at a shelter.
Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan has also come under fire in recent weeks for his claim during both city council meetings and on social media – primarily the Valley East Facebook page he moderates with his wife, Valerie, that there was a legally binding build commitment among the Kingsway Entertainment District’s partners.
Although Kirwan said that he is not misleading the public and that he maintains a legal interpretation of the city’s existing cost-sharing agreement that happens to differ from that of others, the city has repeatedly clarified that no such commitment exists.
In December, city council passed a motion requesting that the city publicize this point to help clear the air, which they did via social media.
Also muddying the waters have been numerous points of misinformation about municipal operations and projects posted to social media by local political activists, most of which centred around the Kingsway Entertainment District.
In anticipation that misinformation campaigns continue on social media as the election season heats up, Sudbury.com reached out to the city’s elected officials, the majority of whom have already confirmed that they are seeking re-election, to hear their thoughts on social media.
As with all other inquiries put to him in recent days, Vagnini was not available for comment.
Insights from mayor and council members
As the most vocal member of city council on social media, Kirwan has come under the greatest fire from political opponents, which he has already brought to the attention of the city’s unreceptive integrity commissioner. Much of the criticism relates to the KED, a project Kirwan has also been a vocal supporter of.
“I have noticed that the more you try to communicate on social media forums with your constituents, the more you leave yourself open to insults, obscenities and the kind of reactions that are nothing less than inflammatory, derogatory, unjust and unfair,” Kirwan said in emailed correspondence with Sudbury.com, adding that these posts quickly snowball into negativity.
“Lately, it doesn’t matter what you say, there is someone who is going to screenshot a post of yours on Facebook or take a guest column and shred it to bits until anyone who reads it thinks you are the most despicable person in the city.”
People are feeling stifled by online blowback, and Kirwan said it will soon reach a point where viable candidates are going to stop putting their names forward to run for any form of elected position due to the backlash they will inevitably face.
“Candidates today are forced to communicate on social media platforms if they want their message to get out,” he said. “When that happens, you know you are going to be attacked and criticized for your positions.”
Ward 7 Coun. Mike Jakubo, who is not seeking re-election, said that he anticipates seeing a “barrage of social media newbies” coming to the forefront in the lead up to this year’s election.
“They will inevitably attack incumbents, share ideas or projects which sound like good ideas, but which are fraught with peril,” he said. “We will see the proverbial biting of lips and taking the foot out of one’s mouth time and time again.”
Although social media will remain the best way to communicate with the most people in the fastest way possible, he said it does not replace the importance of in-face campaigning in whatever form the pandemic will allow.
Ward 4 Coun. Geoff McCausland shared a similar sentiment, in that social media doesn’t compare with real life.
Relaying what he learned from a documentary by Monica Lewinsky about social media, titled “15 Minutes of Shame,” he said, “When we are communicating with a person and are unable to see their face or their mannerisms and body language, we actually do not recognize that individual as human.”
As such, he added, “the comments section often becomes a mire of hate, because the way social media is set up encourages us to dehumanize one-another.”
While recognizing the merits of social media marketing in general, he maintains it’s not a healthy solution.
“After the past two years of screens dominating so many lives, we really need to go back outside and spend time with our friends and neighbours in the real world, where we can have real conversations.”
Sharing a similarly negative take on social media, Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier said there’s no stopping the spread of misinformation on social media.
“It appears to be out of control, magnified by this entering year three of stay-at-home world disease,” he said.
“All people can do is cross-check to verify the facts. … Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. At the city this is easy as all meetings are recorded and accessible to the public. Video evidence of what was said by who and how they voted.”
Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti noted that certain elected officials have been problematic on social media, and pointed to a proposed social media policy for city council that he joined Ward 6 Coun. René Lapierre in requesting city administration to draft a report on.
This report is expected to come forward for city council consideration within a few months, and Signoretti said he’s hopeful it will put everyone on the same page before the election season officially begins.
“I remain hopeful that all candidates will recognize that preserving the integrity of elections is important to our democracy and that candidates will refrain from doing things such as making misleading claims or using fake social media accounts to improve their chances of winning.”
Social media has caused confusion and in extreme cases can even incite hatred, Mayor Brian Bigger said, adding that “acts of intimidation and threats are becoming more frequent through various social media platforms.”
Far too often, he said, people become entrenched within echo chambers of agreeable people.
“That’s the trap you get into, is only reading or following perspectives that perhaps align with their initial thoughts on things and not necessarily taking the time to ensure that they're going to a reasonably credible source of information.”
While social media remains a concern, he said that it’s not the end-all solution to campaigning.
“I still think that the traditional media and speaking directly with people are still some of the more important elements in a campaign.”
A social media expert offers some advice
It’s easy to get swept up by misinformation during the best of times, let alone the divisive environment that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.
So described Shawn Fisher, who owns and operates PMD Media, a Sudbury-based marketing company that among other things specializes in social media marketing.
“There’s so much indecision about what’s happening, and indecision breeds reluctance about the future – we don’t know,” he said.
Modern marketing is pretty well situated to exploit the situation.
Taking a misinformation campaign centred around the idea “wearing masks causes brain damage” as an example, he said a fake news article could be easily fed into an algorithm that targets like-minded people.
Once the fake news hits its intended target, he said, “that group will create the critical mass themselves.”
“A tendency that consumers have with social media is to go down these rabbit holes,” he said. “The more you venture within them the less nuanced the information becomes.”
There are advertisements on Facebook and on websites that people can purchase to target specific demographics. These systems could easily be used during this year’s municipal election season, which will begin with election expenses allowed as soon as candidates submit their nominations beginning on May 1.
Checking the source of information is key, he said, since misinformation can oftentimes appear legitimate when presented online.
Every once in a while, he added, people should also think about disconnecting altogether.
“Perhaps just stop and focus – hug your dog. It’s really easy to get swept up on all this stuff, and all this stuff is not necessarily what’s the most important.”
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.