Ignore the online vitriol when running for municipal office, advise veteran politicians

For those in public office, processing harmful, targeted online posts is considered to be something that comes with the territory of being an elected representative. But there are ways to keep it from getting to you, advise veteran politicians.

'We can be hurt just like anyone else,' says Cambridge Counc. Pam Wolf

Those in public office may face toxicity online as a part of their job and some say that could be deterring new people from running for office. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

On social media, a large following can come with more toxicity — especially if you're in the public eye.

For those in public office, facing harshly worded, targeted online posts may be seen as part of the territory of being an elected representative.

"If you are determined to serve and you wanted to protect our democracy, we need good women, especially, out there running," said Cambridge Ward 5 Coun. Pam Wolf, who is running to become a regional councillor.

"However, there are dangers and drawbacks which are real," Wolf said. "Frankly, as a woman, I'm not sure what I'd say to them because you're putting yourself out there. You're putting yourself in a difficult, vulnerable position."

Elizabeth Clarke, a councillor for the Region of Waterloo, said she has decided to go offline for good.

"I wasn't sleeping at night. I got a knot in my stomach every time I checked [Twitter] and I just thought, 'Why am I doing this to myself?' I had intended to stick with it until the end of my term, but it was becoming too difficult to deal with the stress that was associated with engaging on [Twitter]," she said.

Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky said in his experience, the frequency of negative interactions goes up and down depending on the news cycle.

"Once the pandemic got a bit better and things started opening up, the number of interactions — period — has gone way down on social media," he said.

Jaworsky said during the height of the pandemic, he would be on the receiving end of hundreds of toxic social media interactions every month.

Clarke said she saw it when the region was talking about consumption and treatment sites as well as during COVID-19.

"We tend to assume that this sort of hostility is all coming from one end of the political spectrum. That was not my experience. It came from everybody," she said.

"Even those who came from a position that was normally considered progressive gave themselves permission to be really quite abusive."

Clarke said the biggest challenge online is preventing the spread of misinformation.

"One person would make an allegation and the next thing you knew, there were hundreds of people retweeting it and the next thing you knew, it's become a fact. I tried a number of times to correct that information and it never worked. It would explode in my face," she said.

Wolf said her strategy to stay safe has been to keep her online profiles private.

"I don't comment very often, especially on sites where people tend to be very negative," she said. "To do this job, it's much easier if I don't read those sites. I think most people think all politicians have a thick skin and that's simply not true. We can be hurt just like anyone else."

Jaworsky said he stays online to engage with the community — but not without scheduling in a break.

"Each person needs to look after their mental health. What I like to do is go for a walk to see nature and our trails. Then you could come back with a fresh perspective," he said.

Wolf said taking breaks and limiting exposure to hate online has become more important than ever.

"As the years have gone by, the anger level of people has risen. We're having to take more precautions and people feel much freer because of social media to say things that I don't think they would necessarily say to your face."

Could online toxicity deter new candidates from running?

Melissa Durrell is a former councillor in Waterloo and TV journalist who now heads up her own public relations firm. She is also part of the Waterloo Region Women's Municipal Campaign School, which is a volunteer-led committee that helps women and diverse candidates run for office.

She said online vitriol has deterred a number of new candidates — but social media is a must-have for anyone thinking of running for office for the first time.

"The most important thing is to have a strategy around it ... Have a hand-off plan. Make sure you are having someone else read your social media," she told The Morning Edition's host Craig Norris.

"Also, reach out broadly for help. I had an instance where I was attacked and it was incredible the female politicians and the male allies that came forward to discredit the individual that came after me," she said.

"Finally, do not quit. Carry on. When they go low, we go high."

She said there are many benefits to being online and social media can be used as a tool that can help new candidates engage with community members, recruit volunteers and rally support. 

LISTEN | New candidates will need a thick skin and healthy distance from social media to run for office:


Aastha Shetty

CBC journalist

Aastha Shetty can be reached via email or by tweeting her at @aastha_shetty