‘Provocative’ tweets highlight loss of digital respect – The London Free Press

Death threats shouldn’t be part of the job.

The nasty underbelly of social media is a “growing dilemma” in the political arena, experts said, a reality underlined in London by two offensive tweets levelled at a city councillor Wednesday night.

Matt Farrell, who teaches political science at Fanshawe College, said digital platforms have created a new standard for political debate.

“People don’t really have coherent policy beliefs. All they know is that they hate the other team,” he said.

Online conversations on Twitter and elsewhere on social media lend themselves to open dialogue – where community leaders, including politicians, are easy to access and questions can be posed publicly – but there’s also little moderation for comments that stray over the line.

Coun. Jesse Helmer, an ardent bus rapid transit (BRT) supporter, tweeted Wednesday night about his petition calling for an electric bus fleet.

Londoner Iaan Spence replied:

Another user – the Twitter profile has since been deleted – jumped in with a picture of a noose, tweeting “save the hydro.”

Helmer shared the tweets, noting his female colleagues face worse on social media, and included a link to donate to his campaign.

“This is all too common for politicians at all levels to get this kind of abuse, particularly online, and frankly this is a pretty mild form of it,” Helmer told The Free Press Thursday. “But it’s not acceptable . . . disagreement is expected and healthy, but we can’t start attacking each other or talking about each other like we’re not humans.”

In other cases, he’s had to notify the police about online threats, Helmer said.

He defended his choice to use the tweets as a fundraising opportunity.

“That’s just me trying to take something that was pretty negative and try to turn it into a positive,” he said.

Abuse like this is all too common on social media. Many of my colleagues at all levels of govt, esp women, are subject to a lot worse than these tweets.

Let’s turn a negative into a positive: if you’d like to send a message that this isn’t OK, donate at https://t.co/o0Zz3NJLuW pic.twitter.com/Y0dNE0XK8a

— Jesse Helmer (@jesse_helmer) July 26, 2018

Spence responded to Helmer on Twitter, noting he was speaking about taxes and overspending, not making a personal attack.

He told The Free Press his tweet about “electrifying” Helmer’s council chair was a “wise aleck” comment meant to drive home a larger point about the expense of a $500 million bus rapid transit system and what he described as Helmer’s out-of-control spending.

“When you get frustrated and you continually get ignored when you bring up valid points, you get more provocative in your language,” Spence said. “All we hear from Jesse is one side of this BRT thing.”

His complaints relate specifically to the size and scale of the proposed rapid transit network, Spence said, arguing rapidly changing technology may make BRT obsolete within the next two decades. And his tweet – what Spence described as a half-hearted joke – was not “a serious, violent threat.”

Robert Williams, a retired political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said it highlights the “free-for-all” of unmoderated digital platforms.

“I just find that totally appalling that people feel they need to make those sorts of comments about a policy proposal,” he said.

Farrell added the online style of U.S. President Donald Trump may have emboldened some political watchers.

“That’s what passes for political participation or political discourse today,” he said of the tweets to Helmer.

Many don’t like it. Coun. Tanya Park criticized the tweets, as did a number of community leaders.

The Twitterstorm, just days before the end of the municipal election nomination period, also taps into broader issues around the will to run for political office. Few female candidates have entered the municipal race, barely more than a quarter of those who have filed nomination papers.

Online dialogue plays a role, said Anne-Marie Sanchez, chair of Women and Politics, who tweeted a similar sentiment Wednesday night.

“The divisiveness of certain topics like BRT has brought out more negativity and more polarization. With the polarization, it feels like people get more extreme in their tweets,” she said.

“Women who are in tune to local politics recognize the divisiveness and the toxicity of our political conversations. They don’t think it’s worth putting at risk their safety or the safety of their family when they know people are putting out threats of this nature.”

Spence stands behind his comments, because they drew attention to his concerns about BRT.

But Helmer called for a return to “basic civility.”

“We just have to expect better of ourselves and of everybody else,” he said. “We have to be able to disagree without resorting to this kind of language.”