OPINION | If the campaign is heated in the real world, it is positively volcanic online

"And they wondered if perhaps the campaign had grown so divisive and nasty that people were afraid to publicly declare their political loyalty.” Political columnist Graham Thomson on the Alberta Election.

Albertans would prefer less excoriation and more explanation

Albertans wanted the election campaign to be a debate over policy and programs, but that's not what they've seen so far. (Getty Images)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

When Rachel Notley called the election and let slip the dogs of political war three weeks ago, we knew we were in for an ugly, knock-down, bare-knuckle brawl.

And that's what we got.

But that's not what Albertans wanted.

Albertans wanted a debate over policy and programs, where Notley could defend her policies and Jason Kenney could outline his. Instead we got a campaign where NDP Leader Rachel Notley on the first day called her main opponent, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, a liar and a cheat. We got a campaign where Kenney has accused the NDP of having an anti-oil agenda and of fostering an anti-pipeline alliance with Prime Minister Trudeau.

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If the campaign is heated in the real world, it is positively volcanic online.

And therein lies a serious problem, not just for this campaign, but for political discourse now and after the election.

The social media problem

Anybody tracking the Alberta election campaign purely on social media would think we had lost our minds. We are screaming at each other. Notley is a communist; Kenney a fascist. Nobody is listening — except perhaps for the news media.

And therein lies another serious problem.

Nobody is as plugged into social media as the news media — and we in the media too often treat the virtual world as the real world. And there is a danger that we go sniffing off in the wrong direction. All too often social media and "media" can melt into one.

Albertans go to the polls April 16th. (CBC)

For example, what if both social media and the old school media, by focusing on Notley's anti-Kenney rhetoric the first weeks of the campaign, are barking up the tree of personality — and missing a forest of issues that really matter to Albertans? (And I freely admit I've done my fair share of barking).

This is not to say that issues of morality, character, compassion aren't dearly important to Albertans. The furor we are seeing suggests that many Albertans are deeply, rightly concerned, even as offended as all hell by what they've seen and heard. Outrageous comments deserve moral outrage.

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But even though more than a few Albertans are upset, maybe even frightened, at the thought of a Kenney government, it would seem many are also angry and frustrated over the economy and a lack of pipelines, deficit budgets and an uncertain future.

And in the world of quips, clever lines, and even damn good stories and interviews, the breadth of concerns in this province, at this time, can be lost in social media angst.

A blow out

Take the Charles Adler talk-show interview with Kenney last week.

It was indeed a masterclass in interviewing techniques where Adler, a conservative and friend of Kenney, clearly eviscerated the UCP leader over a litany of troubling issues. From Kenney's anti-gay activism in 1980s San Francisco, to his refusal to fire UCP candidate Mark Smith after his profoundly troubling comments about gays.

Adler didn't use a scalpel to dissect Kenney as much as a chainsaw. But it was a journalistically sound interview.

CTV's Don Martin very fairly tweeted: "Amazing Jason Kenney interview by @charlesadler. Never heard the UCP leader so flustered."

In a wonderfully written article for Maclean's entitled, "Are we really okay with Jason Kenney?" journalist Jen Gerson suggested an increasing number of Albertans are "uneasy" with the UCP.

"Adler was tough, but his questions weren't unfair," wrote Gerson.

"Yet when Kenney responded, what I heard was 'Charles, we all know I have to say the right thing to the left-wing media. Wink.' But Adler didn't wink."

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Was this a "lake of fire" moment akin to the one from the 2012 election when a homophobic rant from an ultraconservative Wildrose party candidate helped sink the party's campaign?

The Martin and Gerson examples above were well reasoned; a myriad of online comments were less so.

If you were on Twitter or Facebook that night and the next day, you might have thought Kenney was gravely wounded given the harpooning he took. But, if he had been hurt, he made a remarkable recovery.

The following evening he was at the televised leaders debate. Maybe a trickle of sweat under the TV lights, but not a spot of blood.

More importantly, the latest aggregate of the polls, according to the CBC's Poll Tracker, puts the UCP at 48.5 per cent support and the NDP trailing with 37.8 per cent (with the Alberta Party at 8.5 per cent and the Liberals at 2.1 per cent).

What's going on?

Is there a disconnect between what the media, both news and social, are talking about and what "real" people are discussing?

Missing the complexity

Are we in Brexit moment — where in 2016 the chattering classes confidently predicted a "no" vote and then 52 per cent voted to have Britain leave the European Union?

Are we in a Trump moment — where in 2016 the east and west-coast "elites" predicted a Hillary Clinton victory and then overlooked the frustration and anger among people in the middle who felt forgotten? You can't simply call all of Trump's supporters racists or all Brexit supporters xenophobes. Delegitimization of real concerns and anxieties does not help the political discourse.

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There are those who would call Kenney's supporters intolerant or blind because their greatest singular concerns are not the greatest singular concerns of a friend on Facebook, or someone on Twitter. But that would miss the complexity of opinion.

Their issues are their own issues.

To understand the mood of the electorate, it's unwise to frame the complexity of issues and concerns that encompass an entire election campaign into the products of online outrage — from any perspective, any party, any particular group or individual.

Some of those prepared to vote for Kenney might have reservations about the man but they are angry and frustrated and they think Kenney best reflects their feelings — and many appear willing to overlook his history, and the intolerant comments from some of his candidates and a litany of UCP members the past year. They don't care what the chattering classes are saying, or what issue has yet again set Twitter's hair on fire.

Less excoriation, more explanation

At a focus group in Edmonton Monday night run by the CBC in partnership with Janet Brown Research, a cross-section of 10 voters, disparate in party affiliation, age, and gender, discussed the campaign.

It's unwise to frame the complexity of issues and concerns that encompass an entire election campaign into the products of online outrage (CBC)

All of them expressed frustration with the negative tone of much of the campaign, particularly personal attacks. They wanted to see issues discussed, not mud tossed. Several said it didn't matter who won the election, that the economy would recover, a new pipeline would get built.

Collectively, they said they tend to get most of their information about the campaign from the mainstream media, but they're gradually losing faith in newspapers and TV.

They think the news media, rather than presenting unbiased facts, is becoming too "opinionated." And that social media, rather than sharing information, has become a toxic echo chamber.

They feel the media is helping perpetuate the adversarial nature of the partisan campaigns rather than cutting through the rhetoric to explain issues and policies. They want less excoriation and more explanation.

A sad observation

It can certainly seem, particularly online, that nobody seems to have changed their minds since the campaign began. Those who were "decided" three weeks ago are sticking with their party; those "undecided" remain on the fence. But who really knows?

A sad observation: several members of the focus group pointed out they hadn't seen many political party signs in their neighbourhoods. And they wondered if perhaps the campaign had grown so divisive and nasty that people were afraid to publicly declare their political loyalty.

That's not how it should be.

If that's what's happening, it's a troubling example of the toxic twitter-verse infecting the real world.


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.


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