My last post was about the emphemeral nature of online life and relationships. This one is about outright fakery.
The ball got rolling on the weekend with the publishing on Friday night of several portraits of the Rob Ford mayoral campaign — one that ended on Oct. 25 with Ford winning in Toronto’s civic election.
From the Oct. 29 Globe and Mail (If you don’t know the backstory, here’s a June 17 ctvtoronto.ca story about the bizarre case of Rob Ford’s interaction with Dieter Doneit-Henderson):
Word soon began to circulate. Mr. Doneit-Henderson had passed a copy (of a recorded telephone conversation in which DDH asked Ford to help him obtain OxyContin – Bill D) to the Toronto Star, bragging on Twitter that he would bring down the mayoralty candidate.
Mr. Kouvalis turned to Fraser Macdonald, the campaign’s 24-year-old deputy communications director. “Whatever you’ve got to do,” he said, “just get me this tape.”
Posing on Twitter as Smitherman supporter @queensquaykaren, whose bio described her as a “downtown Toronto gal who likes politics, my cat Mittens and a good book,” Mr. Macdonald sent direct messages, promising to slip the tape to a reporter. Mr. Doneit-Henderson e-mailed the audio file within a day.
Mr. Kouvalis listened, horrified. “It was like, ‘Pack your bags. This campaign is over.’” He summoned Rob, Doug, Randy and Diane to the Deco boardroom and played them the recording.
“You should have seen the look on Rob’s face,” Mr. Kouvalis recalls. “[Mom] pointed to Dad up on the wall. Oh, man. And Doug was furious.”
But unlike Mr. Smitherman, who’s notorious for making his employees cry, Rob is unfailingly kind to his staff, and in return they are protective of him. Without telling him, the team decided to get out in front of the story and leak the recording to a friendly columnist at a local tabloid*. A June 17 front-page headline blared that he’d been set up.
That morning, Mr. Ford held his first real news conference, explaining to the crush of cameras and reporters that he’d only made the offer to assuage a distraught caller who, he worried, knew where his wife and two young children lived.
“He went out there and he nailed it,” Mr. Kouvalis says. “He was tough. He was strong. He wasn’t backing down from anybody. I was real proud of him. We got through it.”
* That would be Sue-Ann Levy of the Toronto Sun
So all’s well that ends well, although someone really should check into how the criminal harassment complaint went against Doneit-Henderson.*
* There’s an unverified claim below in comments that it went nowhere, but I’m going to follow up
But the subterfuge didn’t stop with Doneit-Henderson, as the Torontoist noted in this post that screen-captured many of the tweets before they could be deleted:
@QueensQuayKaren didn’t stop; she continued tweeting for four months, up until three days before the election.
Torontoist also noted this:
OCTOBER 31, 3:28 PM: There’s more. It looks as if Rob Ford’s team, if not Fraser Macdonald himself, started deleting especially inflammatory tweets from the @QueensQuayKaren account before the Globe and Maclean’s articles came out—including ones that called one-time mayoral candidate and then-Smitherman ally Sarah Thomson “George’s attack whore” and a “bitch.”
If you win, however, it’s all good. From Fraser Macdonald on Oct. 30 on Twitter:
Conservative blogger Stephen Taylor, who came from Ottawa to Toronto to work on the final days of the Ford campaign, added:
Happy to have seen my good friend @macdonaldfraser this week. Fraser’s a brilliant communicator and talented political strategist.
Taylor also retweeted this:
Well, actually, with many media companies, if you posted falsehoods from a fake account, you’d be canned. In politics, it makes you brilliant and talented.
Duane Booth describes himself on Twitter as a political blogger at SoundingBooth.com and editor of abOUT.com. It’s possible he’s not another conservative construct. However, read some of his other tweets:
After reading them, one could be forgiven for wondering if Booth is the product of Macdonald’s fertile imagination.
Hopefully some lucky J-school will have Booth as a guest lecturer in ethics sometime soon.
Social media pro Dave Fleet isn’t among those joining the chorus of praise for Macdonald. Some excerpts from his Oct. 30 blog post:
Is this the kind of behaviour we should expect from our elected officials or their staff? As Dave Jones and John Leschinski pointed out, political campaigns have for a long time populated the Letters to the Editor sections of newspapers with letters under false names. Similarly, cynics will point out that politicians of all stripes have broken promises.
Consider: companies have been hung out to dry for years for this kind of deceptive behaviour when the consequences are far less substantial.
This isn’t just about politics. I don’t care which side of the political spectrum people fall; deceptive and deceitful tactics should be out of bounds. Given the uber-high standard to which we hold companies in the social space, I would hope that people would consider this kind of behaviour to be just as despicable.
If this is the kind of behaviour that is considered normal for the people we trust to run our governments, then our moral compasses are pointed in entirely the wrong direction.
I’m not sure if the City of Toronto’s code of conduct for council members technically applies during an election, or if the city’s Integrity Commissioner has jurisdiction over the actions of the staff of election candidates, but if either applies then I’d hope that this isn’t the last we hear of this.
For journalists, I think the take-away is that politicians and their staff members lie.
They will fabricate evidence of support and use false identities to attack opponents. I’ve often wondered if there are gnomes paid by political parties to comment on news websites. The type of behaviour engaged in by Macdonald does not assuage that fear.
If you are quoting someone from Twitter or any other social media channel, you should try to contact them and attempt to verify they are who they say they are. If you can’t verify their identities, stay away from them.
I do fear this kind of behaviour will become more commonplace. There is no real penalty to be paid by the politicians and/or their staff. If they manage to create a big-enough torrent of lies, it can overpower the response capacity of depopulated newsrooms.
So what happens to our society if it comes to the point that our entire public discourse is one big con game? My guess? It will leave us in serious decline.
On Nov. 2, ReadWriteWeb published the following: Beware those grassroots tweets; they maybe astroturf
According to the Truthy project, a research effort from Indiana University, much of what you’re seeing on Twitter these days consists of “political smear campaigns, astroturfing, and other social pollution.”
The project uses a combination of data-mining, network analysis and crowdsourcing to ferret out what it calls “ truthy memes”. (And yes, “truthy” comes from “ Truthiness” a la comedian Stephen Colbert.) These memes are bits of repeatable information that rely on “deceptive tactics to represent misinformation as fact”. …
Bruno Gonçalves, a research associate on the project, told MIT’s Technology Review that the basic hope behind these astroturfed memes is to convince viewers of the Tweets’ validity by offering context.
“If you hear the same message from many different sources that you think are independent who are saying the same thing, you’re much more likely to believe it,” he said.
Politics is war, and lying is a weapon. But sometimes your weapon can blow up in your own hands.
If you have time, revisit this post from Sept. 15: ‘Quebecor Media Inc. Announces the Departure of Mr. Kory Teneycke, Vice President, Development’