British Columbia·Analysis

Is Trump's style 'contagious' in new 'tribal' Twitterverse? Let's hope not, say Canadian experts

After B.C. Premier Christy Clark accused the NDP of hacking the B.C. Liberals' website — without proof — her press secretary's retweeted excuses came fast and furious.

'Regularized falsehoods' are 'corrosive' for democracy, warns political scientist Jonathan Rose

Political analysts across Canada are keeping an eye on Canadian politicians floating trial balloons to see whether, in the new Twitter-driven universe, Donald Trump's half-truths and attack strategies work north of the border. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

After B.C. Premier Christy Clark accused the NDP of hacking the B.C. Liberals' website — without proof — her press secretary's retweeted excuses came fast and furious. 

Stephen Smart's tweets quote Clark from an interview where she explained how she'd "jumped to conclusions as others did" when there was a data security breach.

Opposition Leader John Horgan is demanding an apology and threatening a lawsuit, saying his party's members hacked nothing.

He believes the "leaked" files which outlined Vancouver Islanders' views found light because of an internal security error, not a hacker with "malicious intent."

It's still unclear how the files became public, but evidence is being gathered for police.

Meanwhile, Smart's efforts earned him the Twitter crown "Canadian Sean Spicer," and Clark's excuses for accusing her opponents of crime sounded like a grade-schooler's refrain: "They did it too!"

Don't we need to hold our premier to a higher account than a child who chucked a snowball?

Now, more than ever, politicians need to check their facts before they talk or tweet.

Premier Christy Clark's public relations head Stephen Smart tweeted that she 'jumped to conclusion as others did about where hack attempt came from' after Clark accused the NDP of criminal activity with no discernible evidence. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Political watchers do not want B.C. to follow the American lead and let misinformation drive discourse.

"[In the U.S.] It's all of a sudden become OK just to ignore when you are wrong and you are lying," said Tyler Chamberlin, a political strategy expert with the University of Ottawa.

"Boy, you just hope that's not something that's contagious that's going to catch on here," said Chamberlin.

He believes politics is becoming "tribal," with people accepting falsehoods as truth, if they come from a member of their team.

Over the weekend, Liberal communications director Emile Scheffel first tweeted about the suspected hack.

Then, Premier Clark repeated the suspicion, fingering the NDP in an interview on Tuesday.

"If it's a member of your tribe, then it doesn't matter what they say. You just don't hold them to account,"  he said.

Signs of 'seeping northwards'

In Canada, political watchers warn against accepting "alternative facts," a ploy used to explain President Donald Trump's various hyperbolic explosions.

They say there is both a desire to prevent this from happening in Canada and a "huge appetite" to understand why it is being accepted in America.

This semester, Jonathan Rose, a political studies professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, is teaching a course called: "What just happened? Explaining the Donald Trump phenomenon."

Rose says Trump's "success" may pave the way for his methods to start "seeping northwards."

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He says the fact U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer is so adamant, reacting to every issue with the "same loud voice" has an effect.

"Maybe other press directors or communications directors are taking a page from that book, saying that we should hold firm rather than be conciliatory."

While Premier Clark's accusation — as she explained — was a simple, angry outburst, Rose and others say it's crucial to pay attention because unchecked inaccuracies cause damage.

"We've become inured to people telling lies as a result of Sean Spicer and Donald Trump's last few weeks and that's really dangerous for democracy ... because it suggests that truth doesn't matter. It's corrosive for democracy. You can disagree but you can't make up facts."​

Hyperbole or fib?

Hyperbole has always been a part of politics in Canada.

And strategists say they are not seeing tactics veer away from veracity too far yet, but they are watching.

"Trump has just rewritten the rule book. The standards of decency just do not apply anymore," said political strategist and former CBC journalist Greg Weston, who says the politics of outright lying has not taken over Canadian politics.

And he hopes that line holds firm.

"It is a really vicious virus when it gets going and it is destructive."

He admits some of the language being used by a few Conservative leadership hopefuls is beginning to sound like something out of the Trump playbook.

Despite this, he remains hopeful Canadians would reject Trump-like behavior in a prime minister — or any Canadian politician — despite being surprised by voters many times before.

By day's end, Clark had backtracked, blaming her temper for her words.

But her comments on the topic remain part of the public record, and the narrative her supporters can draw on — even if the facts prove different.


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