Democracy Watch calls for strong ethics code
If there was an ethics code requiring honesty in politics, padding online media surveys could be a violation.
That's according to Democracy Watch, a non-partisan citizens' group that pushes for democratic reform, government accountability and corporate responsibility in Canada.
"This is essentially being dishonest," says Tyler Sommers, a co-ordinator with the non-profit group.
"The government is trying to make it seem like the public views something that they are doing - or whatever they are polling on - differently than is actually the truth."
Since December, The Telegram has been reporting on how the provincial Progressive Conservatives try to goose online media polls and deliver a co-ordinated message through talk-radio shows to try to bolster government support among the public.
Politicians and those who follow politics say all parties do it to a certain extent.
The Telegram gained insight into how the Tory machine carries out its activities through leaked BlackBerry messages between MHAs, political staff and party foot soldiers.
Basically, when a local media outlet posts a survey question about a provincial issue, a message goes out to a list of Tories urging them to vote - as many times as they can, in some instances - and telling them how to vote.
Calls to radio call-in shows are co-ordinated, and messages stating the party line are available to anyone speaking on issues such as the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric development.
Democracy Watch's Sommers suggested a way to stop poll padding.
"I think the best thing to do is have a strong ethics code that has honesty-in-politics rules that are actually enforcable," he says.
Hugo Rodrigues, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, didn't know if he had "enough polite words" to express his thoughts on a public office holder or government employee trying to pad an online poll and convince people of a policy or political view.
"Frankly, if they are advocating for something, they should be advocating for it on its merits," Rodrigues said.
Kevin Lacey, director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for Atlantic Canada, said the poll manipulation seems "kind of silly" given the more serious issues facing politicians.
He was surprised at the amount of effort that has gone into voting and defending the practice.
"Don't these guys have something better to do with their time than this? I think that's the question for most taxpayers," Lacey said. "If they have so much time to organize themselves, to screw around on online polls, maybe we have too many politicians in the province."
He said it's bizarre and unbecoming that politicians who are paid by the public are doing this.
"I think when people get cynical about politicians and government, it's stuff like this that really kicks them in the teeth," Lacey said.
Rodrigues said the politicians involved must be held to account for poll goosing, and that's the media's job.
He would also like the media to be more transparent about the nature of their online polls - to state that the surveys are not scientific nor an accurate measure of public opinion.
"When the results are presented, what we don't often do is explain this is based on the number of people who clicked the button," Rodrigues said.
Sommers agrees. He says media should be required to put a disclaimer on polls and note that the results don't necessarily represent the views of the public, which some local media outlets already do.
"It needs to be clear from the media," Sommers said.
Based on that advice, The Telegram has changed the name of its online survey from "Tely Poll" to "Your Opinion."
As well, the results of the daily question will now come with the following note: "Your Opinion is a survey of our readers for entertainment purposes only. This is not a scientific poll."
Telegram managing editor Kerry Hann said it's the right move, given the political machinations in play to skew the results.
"This is simply a tool for us to engage our readers, and nothing else. Hopefully, by taking the word 'poll' out of the name and by adding the disclaimer, we're moving back towards that original intent," he said.
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