Montreal politicians are quitting. They say social media is to blame

In the year leading up to the election, multiple politicians have said they’re giving up their seats, citing toxic social media comments and harassment as the reason.

Toxicity and harassment is pushing some to leave politics altogether

Multiple Montreal-area politicians have said they’re choosing not to run again, citing toxic social media comments and harassment as one of the reasons why. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When Montrealers cast their votes in November's municipal election, one name may be missing from the ballot: the incumbent's.

In the year leading up to the election, multiple politicians have said they're giving up their seats, citing toxic social media comments and harassment as the reason. 

Outgoing Town of Mount Royal mayor Philippe Roy is among those who chose to leave. In explaining his decision earlier this year, Roy said that, over time, the tone on social media has taken a turn for the worse — and despite being repeatedly re-elected without opposition, it was no longer worth it to stay in politics.

"People who don't agree? That's great. That's democracy. And that's the municipal game," he told CBC's Daybreak in March.

"But when people decide to use social media to attack you personally or, in my case, sometimes attacking my family — that's when, one morning you wake up and you say, 'whoa, that's too much. And enough is enough.'"

Verdun borough mayor Jean-François Parenteau said the same, citing social media as one of the reasons he decided not to run again. In a Facebook post, he said comments online led him to "realize that I no longer have the energy or motivation" to remain in politics.

Cathy Wong, city councillor for Peter-McGill in Ville Marie and the city's executive committee member in charge of fighting racism and discrimination, also decided not to run for re-election in November.

She told Radio-Canada that she repeatedly received messages online about her Asian heritage and felt she had to "justify that I am a Quebecer."

"For some, I am the Chinese menace incarnate," she told Radio-Canada. 

All three did not return CBC requests for comment this week.

While the problem also exists on other levels of government, experts say the dynamic is different in municipal politics.

The politician-citizen relationship 

Fenwick McKelvey, an associate professor in communications studies at Concordia University,  said the expectation that a councillor or mayor is "local and close to home, someone you might be able to tag on Facebook," can create a different kind of online relationship.

"What we're seeing is politicians who have now grown and developed public identities through Facebook, particularly," he said. "And part of how their job performance is evaluated is how responsive they are."

That puts a lot of pressure on the politician to read and keep up with comments, even those that are inappropriate or hateful, he said.

"A lot of people will think that it's OK to tag their politician, and that ultimately [can be beneficial]," he said. "But it can also be abused."

Katherine Sullivan, a PhD candidate in the political science department at the Université de Montréal, has studied the intersection of municipal mayors and social media. She said mayors across the country were grappling with how to deal with online harassment.

"It's unfortunately part of the job," Sullivan said.

"It's kind of like customer service. But there's only one person [addressing it] most of the time, so there can be a fatigue from having to confront these comments," she explained.

The problem disproportionately affects women and people of colour, she said, because they don't fit the traditional white, male stereotype of who should be a politician.

"The internet is our workplace now and it's become hostile," she said. "It's become sexist, become racist, and most people who don't fit the bill, who vary a little bit from the norm, don't feel welcome."

While she said she sympathizes with people's frustrations with elected officials, and understands the need to "vent those emotions," Sullivan said people need to consider how they communicate with each other online.

"They're people. It's a job," she said. "I wouldn't go in the street and yell at them [and insult them]. Yet we do it online."

Candidates say they have 'thick skin'

Though this is Idil Issa's first foray into municipal politics, she said she's had her fair share of online comments thrown her way.

Issa, who is Black and Muslim, entered the public eye when she testified against Bill 21 at the National Assembly back in 2019. She said it led to some pushback when she was first announced as the Mouvement Montréal candidate for city councillor in Ville-Marie's Peter-McGill district.

"People online were commenting about what I wore, for example, you know, lewd comments about my dress, about my body," she told CBC News.

"But this isn't a sob story. I definitely feel comfortable. I can handle the criticism," she said. "I don't let it get to me and the criticisms that are more legitimate, I take on board and I use them going forward."

Gracia Kasoki Katahwa, who is running to be the mayor of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce with Projet Montréal, is also Black. She said she's had to deal with hate, both online and offline, even before jumping into politics.

"I've lived it. I will probably continue to live it," she said. 

But she sees her candidacy as a way to push back, so that "eventually my kids or other people's kids will be able to [run for office] without having to face all that. "

Issa also said she's thinking of the next generation.

"I take space. And I do that very consciously because I feel like it's important for people who look like me to take space just like everybody else," Issa said.

"I want to encourage young girls who maybe look like me, or who are from diverse backgrounds to know that there's a place for them in politics."


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