Commenters snipe from sidelines, but the kids in short pants are all right

The internet is heralded as the great democratizer, but online commenters use that freedom to abuse public figures who are actually working to improve Canada. It's time to name and shame the anonymous.

It’s time to name and shame anonymous commenters who insult people working to improve Canada

There are young people who do take a great interest in their country’s governance and politics. You might know them better under their nom de guerre: the 'boys (and girls) in short pants,' says Andrew MacDougall. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The internet is heralded as the great democratizer: Twitter has given 140 characters of voice to the voiceless; there's more information available than ever before; social networks are binding us together into communities, etc.

Given the advances in technology and the inability of news organizations to monetize their content (i.e., we plebs get to read it for free), we should be highly engaged in public debate.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true.

Turnout at the ballot box has been shrinking in Western democracies for decades. People are actually slapping themselves on the back in Europe because turnout didn’t go down as much as they feared it might in the recent parliamentary elections. That sound you hear is hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers turning in their graves across the Continent on this, the 70th anniversary year of D-Day.

Meanwhile, the entitled vanguard of Generation Y (short for "Why the f--k am I not the boss of everything already") is bravely resisting the Harper government at home — if by "bravely resisting" you mean flinging handfuls of cyber-poop at politicians they dislike from behind a Twitter cloak of anonymity.

It's not just politicians. Staff and journalists get it in the neck too. Some of my biggest "fans" still applaud each other for having the courage to slag me anonymously on Twitter. We’ve come a long way in 70 years, haven’t we? Our predecessors picked up rifles and stormed the beaches to beat back a bunch of book-burning Nazis and you’re applauding yourself for thinking you're being clever under an assumed name on social media.

Sniping from the sidelines

Take a bow. Indeed, the prosperity secured by our ancestors has made us so comfortable most of us wouldn't pick up a rifle to fight for anything, anywhere. Most of us think sniping from the sidelines is enough.

Our concern stops at the internet’s edge. Technology has made it easier to show we care, and has removed the need to back it up with action any more concrete than a "Like" on Facebook, an RT on Twitter, or an auto-signup to the Leadnow petition du jour.

We applaud stunts and don’t salute the slugfest that is real change. Remember the huge fuss over Brigette DePape, who famously interrupted the throne speech in 2011, decrying the horrors of a Stephen Harper government?

Nobody bothered to tell DePape that the people had just had their chance to "Stop Harper" on May 2 and they chose to stop him to the tune of a majority Conservative government. Put that in your de pipe and smoke it.

It's not just the kids. Have you read the (mostly anonymous) comments on a major news site lately? If the debate were any less-informed we'd call it Parliament.

Cheap joke aside, anonymity produces uncivil debate because it removes shame from the equation. If you want a good bit of theatre at your next dinner party, print out the comments below a contentious opinion column and then act them out in person. Humans simply don’t treat each other that way face-to-face.

The other major problem with the online arena is we can too easily shield ourselves from opposing views. We can now follow the Twitter accounts, read the blogs and visit the websites of only the people with whom we agree. We can construct our own online North Korean-style hermit kingdoms, full of nothing but praise for our fatherland, oblivious to any alternative points of view.

Enter the short culottes

Don’t worry though, all is not lost. Some of the kids are all right. There are young people who do take a great interest in their country’s governance and politics. You probably know them better under their nom de guerre: the "boys (and girls) in short pants."

A wall of Conservative staffers keep journalists at bay as Prime Minister Stephen Harper finishes a speech in Ajax Ont., on April 6, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Mock them if you will, but the majority of the young people who work in politics are bright, sincere in their desire to better their country, and infinitely more worthy of support than a rogue page. Do they sometimes lack experience? Yes. Have they drunk the Kool-Aid? Without question. Do they hold too much power? Perhaps. Are they sometimes idiots? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. At least they’re manning a post.

The same goes for the criticism directed at the politicians who govern us. Think they’re not of sufficient quality? Well, they’ve put their name on a ballot and have won. So put your name on one if you think you can do better.

Have a problem with the reporters and columnists who cover public life? Try reading more of them, not less, and from all sides of the spectrum. Read Haroon Siddiqui and Ezra Levant. Watch Don Martin and Evan Solomon. Read the Toronto Star and the National Post. But never the Globe and Mail. Oh hell, read that too.

There are also steps that can be taken to clean up online debate. To begin, media organizations should force people to log in with their Facebook or Google accounts before accepting comments. If you feel strongly about it, you should be able to put your name and face to it. If that’s too much for you, then it’s too much for us to care. We should all retweet the ridiculous things these anonymous twits tweet at us and advertise their shortcomings to the masses.

It’s not enough to complain

Sorry to break it to you @1Cool and @mrsinisterlefty, if those are your real names, but bringing about the change you claim to seek means lots of work. It’s not a one-click purchase.

You don’t like what Stephen Harper is "doing" to the country? Well, he worked as a staffer on Parliament Hill for years, pursued two degrees in economics, got elected as an MP, ran a think-tank, and then spent five brutal years rebuilding the Conservative movement to the point where he could form a government. Then he worked awfully bloody hard to turn it into a majority. He’s been elected three times as prime minister.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Flinging lame insults across cyberspace under the cloak of anonymity doesn’t make you a truth-teller, or a part of the democratic process. It makes you a lazy coward.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.


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