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'Toxic' social media overshadowing legitimate criticism, says citizen

‘I think a healthy democracy (includes) being allowed to ask annoying questions,’ says woman blocked from viewing city councillor’s social media
2020-02-04 SocialMedia JO-001
Holly McDaniel was blocked on Twitter and Facebook by Coun. Natalie Harris shortly after tweeting criticism at the councillor. Jessica Owen/BarrieToday

Holly McDaniel doesn’t consider herself a heavy social-media user.

But in January, while scrolling through her social-media feed, the Barrie resident saw a post concerning addiction get-well cards that rubbed her the wrong way. Her response to the post led to her being labelled a “troll” and being blocked by local politicians on social media, which she says is a method being used by elected officials to silence legitimate criticism.

“(Sometimes) people use this branding of being positive all the time as a way to silence people asking valid questions,” McDaniel said. “I believe that, in the middle of an opioid crisis when people are losing people they love, a full range of emotions is not only allowed, but expected.”

In January, Coun. Natalie Harris spearheaded the Addiction Get-Well Cards initiative locally, getting people to join in making get-well cards for people struggling with addictions.

McDaniel first heard about the cards through social media.

“I recently lost a friend over the holidays. I was very shocked to hear that she had overdosed,” McDaniel said this week in an interview with BarrieToday. “It really brought the issue home for me. I think, with this loss so fresh in my mind... I asked questions. I’m not the kind of person who beats around the bush.”

McDaniel decided to tweet some of her concerns at Harris around the optics of this kind of activity while the city battles an opioid crisis.

McDaniel’s original tweets to Harris read: “Social media is toxic and doesn't foster discussions well. So apologies if this comes off harsh. However, as a resident of Barrie I sat in council and watched you vote to delay services for addicts in this city. How do you reconcile that record with this movement? As someone who has lost a family member and a friend to addiction, I would be offended to get your personal pet project (which seems largely focused on gaining media/celebrity attention) knowing that you voted to delay life-saving treatment. Right now, we face a crisis of accessible services and you helped take an option off the table. All of this while people die. Your vote was one of many that placed more value on home prices than human lives. So while I understand the urge to create a culture of acceptance, these cards seem really off-base and insincere. Addiction services before arts and crafts please.”

After some back and forth with Harris over Twitter that McDaniel says she thought ended amicably, she was dismayed to see Harris had taken their exchange and put it on Facebook, without naming her, removing context and painting McDaniel's constructive criticism with the same brush as others who sent outright hatred and abuse Harris’ way.

A few days later, Harris blocked McDaniel from viewing her Twitter and Facebook profiles.

“I’m an adult and I’ve been trying to be very aware of the way people act on social media, and how we can potentially alienate the people we’re trying to speak with. I was posing a question about the way it struck me,” said McDaniel.

In Harris' Facebook post, Harris wrote that she'd prefer to talk with constituents with concerns face-to-face, rather than over social media.

McDaniel takes issue with that.

“This whole project has been living and breathing on social media. That’s part of the world we live in. So, why is it OK to have some of these conversations over social media, but then when I’m asking questions, those questions are deemed inappropriate for social media?”

McDaniel worries that online talk about the subject has veered far away from where it began.

Since Harris’ posting, McDaniel said she’s been the target of vitriol from Harris’ supporters.

“I’m just a citizen asking a question. Accessing social media can be ugly, but it’s also kind of an equalizer in that it gives us access to people in power who maybe we wouldn’t normally have access to,” said McDaniel.

Since the backlash, some of Harris’ posts have been taken down and many of the offending commenters blocked from seeing her posts, which raises other ethical questions for McDaniel.

“I’m new to Barrie – I’ve only lived here for three or four years – and I find there’s a culture in Barrie of when really hard questions get asked, there are particular people who circle their wagons,” she said. “I feel like... it creates a culture of fear, which leads to stifling discussions.”

Harassment in the eye of the beholder

In January, Mayor Jeff Lehman deactivated his personal Facebook account, citing social-media toxicity as the reason.

Last summer, Coun. Keenan Aylwin faced an integrity commissioner complaint regarding his use of social media.

Out of that complaint, City of Barrie integrity commissioner Suzanne Craig suggested the municipality implement a social-media policy in council's code of conduct, which was voted down by council at the time.

“This is such a new area. This is why, in my recommendations, I suggested the city turn its mind to this,” Craig said this week. “There needs to be a broad discussion about, while not in any way impeding communication and access to elected officials, that it always be in a respectful way that doesn’t allow for insidious harassment and abuse.”

In the United States, courts have already ruled that a public official who blocks a constituent from their Twitter feed has violated the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

A similar challenge has not yet been contemplated by Canadian courts, so in the meantime politicians and municipalities are left to come up with their own policies.

“When we’re looking at communication, whether a politician is speaking with constituents at council, at a meeting, in city hall or through email, there are rules that have to be followed," Craig said. "So, if a member of the public wants to communicate with a member of council by phone or in person, the City of Barrie has an obligation to ensure that the member of council, any staff that are at the meeting, and any members of the public who are at that meeting are protected from abuse or harassment as (it’s considered) a workplace.

“So, if you take that to the social-media level and if an individual member of council or staff feels in any way threatened, harassed or abused in this space – in this case, the virtual space – the same rules apply. There has to be an environment free of harassment and abuse,” she added.

When asked who determines what's considered harassment or abuse, Craig said the distinctions are in the eye of the receiver.

“If an inquiry is respectful and not communicated in a harassing or abusive way and made for the purpose of obtaining information or addressing a query, those are all legitimate reasons for communicating,” said Craig. “Often times, when we are looking at harassment or abuse claims, very similar to sexual harassment, you don’t look at what the individual intended in their conduct or speech, but you look at the effect on the individual who received the statement or the behaviour.”

In 2018, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson came under fire when three Ottawa residents launched a court case against him, arguing that he violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when he blocked them on Twitter. The case was settled out of court, with Watson agreeing to unblock everyone.

“In the case of social-media commentary, one may very well feel that their comments were legitimate and fair play,” said Craig. “It may be subject of an occupational health and safety complaint by a member of council who feels unsafe, or the member of the public may feel that the member of council is falling short of their obligations under the code, in which case they would contact me.”

Toronto city council has had a social-media policy in place since 2016, as have some other municipalities. However, most are slow to follow suit.

“We are seeing a sea change in terms of communications. Regrettably, we have not caught up in terms of policy, but we do know we’re going to have to,” Craig said.

“The question then becomes: How do we deal with this? What policies do we put in place? Who is responsible for enforcing? These are questions that every municipality in Ontario and beyond has to deal with,” she added.

Looking back at the situation, McDaniel stands by her right to ask questions of elected officials.

“I think ending stigma against addiction is a very noble thing. I think it’s great. I’m not against the card-making project. But, how do we tell people to get well, while removing the services that help them get well?” said McDaniel.

“I think a healthy democracy (includes) being allowed to ask annoying questions. Do I get to be rude about it? No.”

If the blocking trend continues, McDaniel says she has concerns about the effect it could have on local democracy.

“I think this has a chilling effect on our local engagement,” she said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Harris had de-activated her Facebook pages.

When reached for comment by BarrieToday on why she chose to shut them down, Harris said she's seeking guidance on how to manage online bullying and harassment.

"I have been advised by staff, including the integrity commissioner, that blocking and shutting down social media is warranted at this time. I will be making a public statement soon," said Harris.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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