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Don't Say the E-WordDon't Say the E-Word

Don't Say the E-Word

Looking to the new Elections Canada rules that require jumping through hoops just to debate climate change, as well as a Convivium run-in with trying to advertise a story on Facebook, Peter Stockland questions how far our democratic babysitting has gone.

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Don't Say the E-Word August 20, 2019  |  By Peter Stockland
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My friend, former colleague and Convivium contributor Peter Menzies writes on Troy Media today that the uproar over Elections Canada and climate change must be seen as well-intentioned rules being administered at peak persnickety.

Peter is correct that the federal overseer’s recent warning to groups involved in the climate change debate is all of that. He’s also right Elections Canada itself has done nothing wrong. It has, as he says, simply followed the law written and passed by Parliament.

But there’s more than mere hyper-rectitudinalism afoot here. The whole episode is yet another example of our far-gone democratic infantilization. Worse, we have no one to blame but ourselves given our neglect of civic awareness and willingness to hand off decision-making to avatars and algorithms.

Here at Convivium, we were recently startled to learn firsthand just how far far-gone has gone. On July 31, we published a lovely article by the esteemed Rabbi Reuven Bulka. Its headline was “Canada At Its Best.” Its content comprised Rabbi Bulka lauding the comportment of all sides in a contentious situation involving Toronto-area Jewish MPs seeking to have October’s federal election day changed to accommodate their religious obligations. 

Rabbi Bulka explained with great empathy and clarity why the MPs were justified in their request. He also praised the just and diligent approach of the chief electoral office in considering the request from all angles before regretfully declining to accommodate. The entire emphasis was on the fundamental decency and respect shown throughout the process, which Rabbi Bulka concluded exemplified Canada at its best.

We thought the column so good, its voice so wise, its positivity so honest, that we offered to pay a small fee to Facebook to promote it to a far broader audience than Convivium reaches on any given day. A bot told us no. Request rejected without explanation. Our money was no good. 

Curiosity piqued, and frankly miffed that a great column with such a hopeful headline didn’t pass Facebook muster, we pursued inquiries. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a bot to answer the straightforward question: “Why?” I’ll tell you. It isn’t hard. It’s impossible. 

Why? Because “why” poses a human question. Artificial intelligence algorithms? They’ve got no use for humanity’s whys. 

Fortunately, our dogged Convivium colleague Rebecca Atkinson at last tracked down an actual Facebook human being, who advised with great cheerfulness and well-intentioned helpfulness that we had erred by including the word “election” in the subheading above the story about, well, an election. FB bots scan content for the word “election” without caring one whit what’s actually being said about the election. In addition, the friendly marketing professional explained that the content of what’s actually being clicked on is of no concern, rather, the issue is when certain words are used on the Facebook platform itself. 

All that matters is that we, as Canadian citizens responsible for a Canadian web magazine, are registered with U.S.-based Facebook as certified users of the word election. Just get rid of the “e-word,” we were advised, and Facebook will be your BFF once more, happy to take the money and help promote the posted content far and wide. Or, have your employees “authorized” and background checked, driver’s license et al

Imagine that as a solution: just get rid of the word election! Absurd? Ludicrous? Verging on looney tunes? All that and more. Yet, as Peter Menzies says about Elections Canada, it’s not Facebook’s fault. 

What did we think was going to happen when we turned over the free-for-all give-and-take of rambunctious democratic point-counterpoint to machine-level binary judgments? More broadly, what do we think is going to happen as we turn over to rule-bound administrators the decisions about who can say what under a given set of electoral conditions?

A clear sign of what’s coming is the blow-back that erupted this week when Elections Canada said it would have to apply election spending rules to campaigns by groups on all sides of the climate change debate. It was touched off, reportedly, by People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier giving a speech on climate change that was deemed to have made the issue a partisan electoral matter.

From now on, groups with charitable status, or even non-profits, will have to register as third-parties for the coming election campaign if they have paid things to say about climate change. Boosts of social media posts totalling more than $500 will be as subject to evaluation under the Elections Modernization Act as would traditional media “spends” on print, radio or TV. 

To be clear, Elections Canada isn’t changing what Canadians can say about climate change. 

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Your twisted sister or drunken uncle, even if they couldn’t spell “anthropogenic” with the dictionary open, remain entirely free to rear up on their hind legs and entertain the family reunion with Twitter snippets about the latest UN report. But if they spend above a certain threshold to publicly promote their pressing and important thoughts on the matter, Elections Canada just might come calling.

As so often happens, all sides in the issue at hand have momentarily put their divisions aside to denounce the Elections Canada warning. Advocates of emergency action against climate change insist it can’t be a partisan issue because it is a scientific fact. “Rubbish,” retort Bernier and others, but the fact climate change is a fantasy in their book doesn’t mean they’re any more favourable to the State regulating commentary about it.

But Peter Menzies notes succinctly that many of those now decrying Elections Canada’s application of the rules are the ones who re-wrote the rule book in the first place.

“Here we are, wrapped up in a well-intended set of rules (it was already illegal for non-Canadians to buy political ads) so vast, and a bar so low, that an immense administrative burden has been passed along to innocent bystanders – groups and individuals,” he writes. “This seems to have caught even those who supported (the Elections Modernization Act) off guard.” 

He notes, for example, that B.C. New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen supported the Elections Act changes – until they became “idiotic” by helping the likes of uber-libertarian Maxime Bernier, who in turn called the same changes “absurd” because they stifle his maximalist vision of free speech.

“Which positions are idiotic, and which ones aren’t, used to be decided freely and solely by citizens in a voting booth,” Menzies reminds us.

Ah, yes. Citizens in a voting booth. Those were happier times, indeed. Remember them? We were still adults then, allowed to say the “e-word” out loud without being bothered by bots.


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