Social media expert says fracas in House of Assembly could alienate constituents
An associate professor at Memorial University says the associations of politicians on social media sites have been blown out of proportion. — Photo illustration by The Telegram
A local social media expert says this week’s dustup over MHA Gerry Rogers’ Facebook account could turn off citizens.
Following Tuesday’s ejection of Rogers from the House of Assembly over her membership in an anti-Dunderdale Facebook group in which a user made death threats against the premier, a CBC news report revealed questionable associations among PC members’ own social media profiles, including that the premier’s Twitter account was following an X-rated profile that promotes pornographic videos.
Lyle Wetsch, an associate professor of marketing in Memorial University’s faculty of business administration, said the associations have been blown out of proportion.
“The big problem is that there’s a lot of reactionary responses going on right now, and I guess in my opinion, the biggest risk is that the true value of having government and having members of government connecting with constituents and engaging with them could be hampered by this dialogue that’s going on right now,” he said.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale deleted her Twitter profile Wednesday night after discovering it was following a pornographic account.
“When I found that somebody had attached disturbing material to my account, I disassociated myself with it immediately and took it down immediately,” the premier said Thursday morning after speaking at the Skilled Trades Conference for Women and Youth. She added that she has been involved in anti-violence work her entire life. “I particularly understand how pornography contributes to violence against women and the degradation of women, and let me tell you, I am not going to be associated with anything that promotes that kind of behaviour.”
Wetsch said social media provides a “huge opportunity” for politicians to connect with citizens.
“Every individual is going to have their preferences and their styles of where things are,” he said. “If the premier has chosen not to go down that pathway, obviously that’s a choice that she’s made. But we very clearly can see the success of engaging with her constituents positively through social media, and you look at the examples of Barack Obama, you take a look at the mayor of Calgary, you look at Justin Trudeau, who’s basically following Barack Obama’s playbook from when he first got elected. We’re seeing that sort of engagement. And all of the research that has come out in the last couple of years is all really showing that the more government engages with constituents through social media, the higher level of trust there is from the constituents, the higher level of perceived transparency, and it translates into a lot more engagement by the constituents, even down to an increased level of volunteerism.”
Dunderdale said she accepted Rogers’ explanation that she was added to the group without her knowledge, but noted Rogers has refused to remove her Facebook account from the group.
“Given that she said that she had no knowledge about her being added to the group, that that was done without her knowledge, I accepted that,” said Dunderdale. “I said, ‘Fair enough. You didn’t know that you were on the group. But now you do, so are you going to disassociate yourself with the messaging that’s there, in significant amounts on the site?’ And she’s chosen to do something else, and I think that’s really disappointing, but it is what is.”
But Rogers isn’t backing down. She said she didn’t deliberately join the group, but in hindsight, if she’d known about it, she probably would have.
“This group is comprised primarily of citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador who are gathering in a public forum for political discourse, and most of their political discourse is about their discontent with this current budget that’s before the House, and their discontent with this government,” Rogers said. “This group has been horribly maligned. There was one person, one person that we know of, apparently, has made threatening remarks. That’s a criminal offence. Those remarks have been taken down and the police are dealing with it — proper procedure as it should be.”
Rogers said by trying to associate her with the actions of everyone in the group — there are currently more than 2,000 members — the government is displaying “wilful ignorance” of how social media works.
On Tuesday, when the issue first came up, Rogers said she didn’t even know she’d been added to the Facebook group, and she hadn’t participated in any way. But she’s started participating now, inviting Facebook users to a town hall she’s holding next Wednesday evening to discuss issues around the provincial budget.
“I encourage all citizens of N.L. to continue the dialogue,” she wrote. “I strongly defend the right of all citizens to criticize their government and their politics.”
Dunderdale said MHAs are held to a higher standard. “We live in public life. We’re examples to people. We need to be careful about what we’re doing.”
The premier said she “very purposefully” hasn’t used her Twitter account in more than a year, and, in response to a question from a reporter, said she doesn’t feel it’s contradictory to delete her account after her government created the Office of Public Engagement to reach out to constituents.
“I engage with the public. Is there some requirement that I have to read every letter, read every email, have a Twitter account, be engaged in Facebook?” she said. “I have all kinds of opportunity to hear from the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and I have the freedom to choose which one of those, or how many of those tools that I’m going to use.”
Asked if Rogers’ ejection meant Rogers was expected to read every email she receives in order to prevent her name being associated with questionable comments, the premier reiterated she accepted Rogers’ explanation that she was added to the group without her knowledge, but again called for the MHA to remove herself from the group.
“She has decided not to. I think it’s sad, but I’m not having anything more to say about it. I’m moving on,” she said. “And in terms of my piece, people might be able to attach to my social feeds without my knowledge, but as soon as I become aware of it, it’s going to get taken down. I’m not going to be associated with that kind of vileness, or that kind of violence. I am just not.”
Dunderdale said there’s provincial business to attend to.
“I’ve spent enough time on this. I have work to do, I’ve got a budget that I’ve got to implement, I’m on a plane to Toronto this afternoon where I’m meeting with (Alberta) Premier (Alison) Redford and (Manitoba) Premier (Greg) Selinger and we’re getting on with the development of an energy plan, hopefully for this country, certainly for COF (Council of the Federation), that we can promote to the federal government so we can get on with the things that I’ve just talked about to the young people in this room.”