Recently we’ve reported on how municipalities are fighting back against online trolls.
In Cantley, a successful injunction forced Facebook to reveal the identity of an anonymous person posting defamatory comments about two of its councillors. The lawyer representing the municipality described the unnamed troll’s apology and financial settlement as a “first” for Quebec.
The municipality of Pontiac is pursuing a similar injunction for “incredibly abusive” online comments posted under a pseudonym about the mayor, councillors, staff and even members of the community.
Last week we received a copy of the MRC Vallée-de-la-Gatineau’s cease-and-desist letter it is sending to one of its residents for harassment of its public officials.
It can be a tricky balance: the line between healthy-but-pointed debate and abuse can be fuzzy. But those who spend time on social media can see for themselves that, even in our local, mostly-friendly Facebook “Folks” pages, nasty, damaging comments are so common they are to be expected.
The toxic nature of such discourse is causing the authorities to get involved at an increasing rate. The MRC des Collines Police costs are going up this year, according to the MRC’s budget, and one reason cited was the increasing number of online harassment and threats our police have to investigate.
Politicians are popular targets. According to a Globe and Mail article, the Sûreté du Québec received about 300 reports of online threats made against elected officials between March and September this year, a 450 per cent increase over the same period last year. And it’s been widely reported that women politicians are targeted at much higher rates than men – some cite at rates 27 times higher – and the nature of the abuse is often violent and sexual in nature.
Fall 2021 is the next round of municipal elections and there is already a campaign underway by the Union des municipalités du Quebec to recruit more female politicians — currently only 32 per cent of municipal council seats are held by women. But online abuse is a serious barrier to that goal.
There doesn’t seem to be much available to local politicians to fight this scourge.
According to Chelsea Mayor and MRC des Collines Prefect Caryl Green, insurance does exist for elected officials and senior management should they need to fight online harassment in court. She says the UMQ has also offered some information sessions on the reality of online abuse, but she doesn’t know of any formal training on offer. She did say an awareness campaign will be launched soon called, “Respect within democratic discourse… out of respect for democracy.”
Really, the onus should be on the social media platforms to prevent abusive or defamatory comments (the way news media companies are held responsible). To that end, various governments around the world are pushing to make this happen through legislation. It’s a complex global problem with no clear solution in sight.
In the meantime, the UMQ needs to provide more support and tools if it wants to see more people get involved in local politics. Green’s advice for women seeking a seat is to surround themselves with knowledgeable people who can help navigate the vitriol of the online world.
If we want more women to run for council seats, the public needs to see more women in council seats. The field needs to be levelled.