British Columbia·Analysis

Social media scandals point to a bland political future

Intense scrutiny on social media profiles of federal election candidates has resulted in a handful of resignations. But if the only way to political success is a squeaky clean past, is the public being robbed of all but the dullest of politicians?

Ex-campaign manager says parties can't afford to lose time to candidate gaffes in a tight race

Liberal candidate Cheryl Thomas resigned over Facebook posts that included quoting elements of a Russell Peters Christmas special. (Cheryl Thomas/Facebook)

It's doubtful Cheryl Thomas stopped to think about her political future when she sat down to watch the Russell Peters Christmas Special in December 2012.

The former Victoria Liberal candidate posted a note on Facebook about the show — "LOL!!!!" — and then recited almost verbatim a joke the Indo-Canadian comedian made about wanting Santa to be white.

"You can't have a brown guy with a long beard sneaking into your house and leaving packages," Peters told his studio audience. "You don't! You're calling the bomb squad immediately."

Out of context, out of time

On the TV special, the audience erupted with laughter.

Three years later, the joke bombed for Thomas, lifted out of context and out of time from her Facebook account along with other past comments she made about mosques and Israel.

Like a good soldier, she resigned immediately, apologizing "unreservedly" to the Jewish and Muslim communities.

It's a kind of political expediency former provincial B.C. Liberal campaign manager Mike McDonald says he understands as far as the party is concerned. But he also knows Thomas personally.

"I know her character and I think she's an excellent person," says McDonald, who is not involved in the federal campaign.

"But the party just had to move on to other issues, is my impression of it."

Social media scrap heap

The scrap heap of Canadian political dreams is littered with candidates downed by social media gaffes.

McDonald, who helped Premier Christy Clark win an unexpected 2013 election, says deep scrutiny far beyond just the internet is part of modern political life.

That's amplified by a system in which the control of candidates and their message as a whole has moved from riding associations to the political parties themselves.

"We've come to a point where the political party centrally is responsible for everything everyone says," he says. "And it comes to some extent at the expense of the local flavour of the candidates."

So what type of person can actually pass muster with a deep social media background test? Do parents have to start warning their children now not to say anything remotely controversial, ever, if they have any hopes of becoming a public figure when they grow up?

And are the politicians of the future going to be so controlled and guarded that you never actually know what they think about anything?

"This is just one of many things that hold people back from running," says McDonald.

"The scrutiny in their lives; financial implications; what it does to one's family: There are real barriers to get people to run and it's harder and harder to attract good people."

'They say dumb things'

University of British Columbia political scientist Max Cameron says successful politicians, by nature, tend to be gregarious risk-takers. He worries that social media puritanism may scare otherwise competent people away.

"We do need to be, as a public, forgiving of our politicians," he says.

"They can make blunders. They say dumb things. I don't think you can pee into somebody's mug and put it back in their sink — but the public needs to be forgiving."

Liberal Party candidate Maria Manna stepped down over social media posts expressing skepticism about the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. (Facebook/Maria Manna)

Viewed in the fullness of Thomas's online life, even her more controversial statements appear to be pretty much what you might expect from an organizational expert who spent years working and consulting in the Middle East.

One day, she's posting a "moving" testimonial from a Holocaust survivor; the next she's railing against Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

One moment she's wishing a happy Eid Mubarak to "all my Muslim friends"; the next she complains about mosques being used as "brainwashing stations" in relation to a letter the Taliban wrote to Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girl who was shot in the head for wanting to go to school.

Most people are capable of a range of complex, contrasting and occasionally offensive opinions — but politicians aren't most people.

McDonald says green-light committees will work with candidates to identify pitfalls in advance, to "hang a lantern" on a problem in the words of former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Tip O'Neill.

But he says that's not an option in a tightly fought election campaign with just a little more than two weeks left

"The clock is ticking," he says.

"The leader is trying to get his or her message out every day. And to lose a day because of a candidate misfire is kind of devastating. And right now they've got to clear these issues out as fast as possible and move on to the next topic."

It could have been worse: the comedian Peters followed up his gag about a brown Santa by joking that he shouldn't be Chinese or black either. Thankfully, Thomas chose not to post those.

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.


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