A new political force in Ontario is exploding on social media, with defeating Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals in the 2018 election as its key goal.
It's called Ontario Proud, and its Facebook page has amassed nearly 145,000 followers — more than the provincial Liberals, PCs and NDP combined.
Created little more than a year ago, it has become the province's biggest online political group.
"Goes to show you that Ontarians are really fed up with the status quo, and they want change," said Ontario Proud's founder, Jeff Ballingall.
"I'm trying to showcase that people have a right to feel grievance and outrage that they're essentially being trampled on by this government that's so out of touch," Ballingall said Friday in an interview with CBC Toronto.
Ontario's Proud's Facebook page is a mix of mainstream media news stories, anti-Liberal memes and shareable videos made by Ballingall. The posts primarily target Wynne, but include regular smackdowns of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with an overarching theme against government waste, tax hikes and mismanagement.
"No one [in Ontario] is doing what we're doing online," said Ballingall. "We can say and do things that traditional media and political parties can't. We can be funny, we can be a little more hard-hittting."
He said the content received 3.2 million engagements in the past month and believes it's succeeding "because we're talking about hydro and jobs and pocketbook, kitchen-table issues."
How social media will influence the campaign
Ontario Proud's large following is another example of how a growing number of people primarily access political news via Facebook groups, and it may give a taste of how social media will influence the 2018 provincial campaign.
"If you see your uncle, your cousin or your neighbour sharing a political message, you're way more likely to engage with it than a television commercial," said Ballingall. "It's much less passive."
Ballingall, 31, established Ontario Proud last year. He grew up in Sarnia, has worked on Parliament Hill as a Conservative political staffer, at Toronto city hall for Coun. John Parker, and for the strategic consulting firm Navigator. He acknowledges he is a small-c conservative but says the group is non-partisan.
Despite the site's staunchly small-government, right-of-centre tone, Ontario Proud will encourage "strategic" voting in 2018, by telling its audience which party's candidate it believes has the best chance of defeating the Liberals in each constituency. (Ballingall, who lives in the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York, says he will vote NDP.)
What's not clear is whether Ontario Proud's posts are actually influencing people to turn against Wynne and the Liberals or merely attracting followers who've already made up their minds.
Some members voted Liberal
A survey of its Facebook community indicated 20 per cent voted Liberal in the last election, according to Ballingall.
"I honestly think we're making a huge difference," he said. "We are reaching people from all age groups and predominantly women."
Non-partisan interest groups have been a key force in recent Ontario elections. The most influential has been the Working Families Coalition, the union-funded agency whose mission has been to keep the PCs out of power through attack ads. The group spent $2.5 million in the 2014 campaign.
By contrast, Ontario Proud is working on a shoestring. Ballingall says the venture has cost just $5,000 so far.
Ontario Proud's current activities are just online but Ballingall says it has collected a "war chest" and will spend money on political advertising closer to the June 7 election.
CBC Toronto asked Wynne's office about Ontario Proud. A spokesperson responded: "We're not going to comment on a website that supports profane, hateful and abusive comments."
Comments about Wynne that were visible Friday on the Ontario Proud Facebook page included:
- "That ugly nasty greedy no good money grubbing snot faced witch" (Debbie Berube).
- "The ugliest human dyke who ever existed" (Darryl Mckee).
- "I'm surprised that no one has shot her but maybe the bullets cost to much" (Thomas Duncan).
- "The most lying, cheating, selfish, self centred, uncaring, mean ugly bitch that ever was in power in Ontario" (Barry Howard).
"I try my best to police comments and put filters up but I can't obviously catch everything," said Ballingall.
Ontario Proud is incorporated as a non-profit, with Ballingall, Toronto lawyer Ryan O'Connor and tech entrepreneur Chris Spoke as its directors.
Facebook page likes (as of June 2017):
- Ontario Proud: 143, 817.
- Kathleen Wynne: 55, 090.
- Ontario PC Party: 55, 431.
- Ontario NDP: 19, 224.
- Ontario Liberal Party: 9, 152.