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New report: Trolled on the Campaign Trail–Online Incivility and Abuse in Canadian Politics

October 29, 2020

Hot off the presses – a new report by Heidi Tworek and me on the online harassment of Canadian politicians. It’s published by UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, with funding from SSHRC, Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge, and UBC’s Language Sciences Initiative.

Here’s a little Q&A with me on this project for the UBC Political Science Research Portal.

What motivated you to investigate online incivility and abuse during the 2019 election? 

For several years I’ve been studying how the internet can be misused to undermine human rights or democracy. I’ve examined foreign election interference, and cyber-security threats faced by human rights advocates in Syria and elsewhere. Like everyone, I’d encountered media reports on the online harassment faced by politicians. There’s some good research on this topic in other countries but almost none in Canada. So, together with Heidi Tworek (Associate Professor of Public Policy and International History), I decided to try to fill that gap. The 2019 federal election seemed the right time to do it, and we got a grant from the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge to begin the project.

What did you find?

We analyzed over one million tweets at candidates in the 2019 campaign, and found that about 40% of them were uncivil or abusive. We also interviewed over 30 candidates and campaign staff, and they told us they faced similar levels of negativity on Facebook. So, social media during elections can be pretty toxic. Different candidates have different experiences, though. The national party leaders and other prominent candidates got thousands of Twitter comments, and thousands of these were abusive or uncivil. Less prominent candidates got nowhere these volumes. What’s more, some campaign teams were more or less prepared to manage online attacks, and some candidates are more threatened or disturbed by the hostility they faced than others.

Q: You categorize social media posts into uncivil and abusive. Can you explain how you came up with these categories?  

We drew on insights from the academic literature, and from our diverse team of researchers, but also from candidates themselves. In campaign offices, coffee shops and virtual meetings, we asked people to evaluate a set of increasingly offensive messages, from “Poor little misguided child” to profanity-laced insults. An eavesdropper might have thought we were testing out material for a really offensive “roast”. But our interviewees were remarkably accommodating.

Why do you think politics attracts such vitriol on social media?

Democratic politics is a mix of collective problem-solving and the non-violent management of social conflicts. Elections can bring those conflicts into high relief, so it’s not surprising they play out online. Candidates use social media to engage and mobilize people, but these platforms also make it easy for people to send hostile messages, instantly and basically from anywhere in the world. And we now that messages that evoke strong emotions – like anger and revulsion – tend to spread more quickly

The platforms remove some of this material for violating their terms of service, but they struggle to deal with the volume, speed and variety of problematic content. And of course, people have different views about what is offensive or not, and what crosses the line to such a degree that that it should be scrubbed from the platforms. 

Social media provide a new way to spread this vitriol, but they didn’t create it. I found reading hundreds of dismissive or angry messages to be illuminating, like an X-ray revealing some of the dark seams in our political culture—the angers, resentments, conspiracy theories, false beliefs,  and not infrequently sexism and racism.

Your research shows that women and non-white candidates did not get significantly higher proportions of abuse or incivility online, however, messages were focused on attacking their identities motivated by partisan animosity. How does that affect their participation in politics?

Women and visible minority candidates are some of the most effective users of social media platforms, from Jagmeet Singh to Catherine McKenna to Michelle Rempel Garner to Annamie Paul. However, they also face sexism and racism online—and these attacks can signal to other prospective candidates that they, too, will have their identities attacked. We also found that racism and sexism online often have an impact because they echo the hostility, the dismissiveness, or the fears of violence that female, racialized, Indigenous, and 2SLGBTQ+ candidates have faced offline. 

It sounds like this project brought together an interesting mix of research approaches. 

Yes, and we were only able to do it because we had a great team. We had four excellent research assistants, all recent graduates from the Political Science department: Jordan Buffie, Jaskiran Gokhal, Sonya Manuel, and Veronica Stolba. We got a great deal of help early on from Grace Lore, who got her PhD here, and who more recently went into politics herself and is now an MLA. And we had indispensable assistance from Trevor Deley, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, who did the computational analysis of the million tweets at candidates.

We have also partnered with Equal Voice to help make our research useful to women – and especially racialized women – who are interested in running for office. 

In addition to research on online abuse and incivility, you’ve also done studies of disinformation. How are those related?

They are deeply related, because public discussions in democracies are most productive when they feature higher levels of moral respect, defensible truth claims, and the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Disinformation campaigns don’t only spread false and deceptive messages, they also promote disrespect toward politicians and democratic institutions. This is an argument that I developed with Spencer McKay, another recent PhD graduate from our department, in an article in Political Research Quarterly called “Disinformation as a Threat to Deliberative Democracy.” We looked in particular at foreign disinformation campaigns surrounding the 2016 US election, but it’s clear that the situation has only got worse in the lead-up to this year’s election. 

What solutions do you see for politicians and citizens to maintain a civil discourse during elections on social media?

We’ve got a lot of recommendations, for candidates, political parties, social media platforms policymakers. I encourage people to check them out! But citizens also have an important role to play. They can call out abuse online when they see it. They can communicate their empathy and support for people who seek office. They can – and should – criticize public officials, but without vitriol and personal attacks. And they take a deep, calming breath before hitting “tweet.”

New Article: Protecting Democracy from Disinformation–Normative Threats and Policy Responses

May 27, 2020

This is truly the lazy man’s blog. Here’s a Twitter thread!

My article surveys policy proposals and debates in 10 countries and the EU, and shows how different democratic goods are the focus of different policy sectors: national security, electoral regulation, and media regulation. (2/n) 

Its spark was a workshop with @HeidiTworek @mckelveyf and the @ppforumca in 2018. We had international experts and Canadian government officials do tabletop simulations of responses to disinfo attacks. It led to our report, published by the Public Policy Forum, Poisoning Democracy: How Canada Can Address Harmful Speech Online.

As a part-time democratic theorist, I wanted to understand the different conceptions of democracy at stake in global debates over disinfo policy. A problem: a new policy or expert study seems to come every 36 hours. Did I miss some? Undoubtedly! (4/n) 

Time for shout-outs! I can’t praise @prof_vaccari and the #IJPP team enough, including for finding the most thoughtful set of peer reviewers I’ve ever had. Thanks also for feedback from @mckayspencer @JordanBuffie @robyncaplan, and support from @peterwklein @SSHRC_CRSH (5/n)

There are a few articles at the intersection of democratic theory, disinfo and disrupted public spheres that I think deserve more attention. Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy by @henryfarrell and @schneierblog (6/n)

Jenni Forestal’s Beyond Gatekeeping: Propaganda, Democracy, and the Organization of Digital Publics @seejenspeak (7/n) 

Dave Karpf’s On Digital Disinformation and Democratic Myths @davekarpf for the impressive #MediaWell series by @SSRC_mtp (8/n)

The unedited public sphere by @BruceBimber_yu @_HGZ

And lastly, if you’re looking to do comparative work on responding to disinformation, I highly recommend Information Manipulation: A Challenge for Our Democracies by @jeangene_vilme and his @IRSEM1 team (10/n) 

Disinformation and Propaganda – Impact on the Functioning of the Rule of Law in the EU and its Member States by @JuditBayer & colleagues for the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs (11/n) 

And of course, the #IJPP article by @EddaHumprecht @esserfrank_ and @petervanaels, Resilience to Online Disinformation: A Framework for Cross-National Comparative Research (12/12)

New Article: Responding to Online Disinformation and Harmful Speech in Elections

October 8, 2019

I’m happy to be one of the contributors to The Informed Citizen’s Guide to Elections: Current Developments in Democracy, a very timely issue of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law. I can’t wait to dig into chapters from the chief electoral officers for Canada, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Ontario; from leading academics in Canadian electoral law and politics, such as Mike Pal and Elizabeth Dubois of the University of Ottawa and Colin Bennett atC the University of Victoria; and from some newer voices in this area, like Brian Budd and Anna Reepschlager.

Copyright Thomson Reuters, 2019

My UBC colleague Heidi Tworek and I wrote a chapter on policy responses to online disinformation and harmful speech in elections. We clarify the risks that disinformation and harmful speech pose to political participation, and examine the current regulatory context in Canada to address them. We propose some policies that would enable the Canadian government, social media platforms and journalism organizations to better understand and reduce the threats to democracy posed by disinformation and harmful speech. These are partly drawn from policies that other countries are pursuing. We call for a three-pronged policy framework: 1) greater enforcement of existing laws, 2) regulation to encourage and help social media platforms address abuses; and 3) improved civil society measures, especially by journalism organizations.

Of course, this chapter was written long before the current election campaign begins. I look forward to a future edited collection, which assesses how Canada’s electoral framework held up to the test in 2019.

What’s happening online during this Canadian election?

September 17, 2019

It’s official: the fall and the election have truly arrived. The rain is pouring, the course I teach on digital media and politics is in full swing, and the campaign ads are coming fast and thick. 

Since Canada’s last federal election, we’ve seen countless stories about Russian disinformation, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, bots, deepfakes, and the Momo Challenge. Are these forms of digital manipulation likely to affect the current election? It’s hard to say, in part because too often we predict what will happen in Canada by extrapolating from developments in the U.S.

I’m therefore happy to be part of an unprecedented effort by researchers and journalists to study the digital media landscape in Canada during this election campaign. The Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge is helping to support 18 research projects, from Fenwick McKelvey’s Great Canadian Encyclopedia of Political Memes to a study of citizen engagement with environmental issues by Shelley Boulianne.

Together with my UBC colleague Heidi Tworek, I’m leading a study of the harassment and abuse that political candidates face online. We will be examining what kind of negative messaging they face, how it affects their work as public communicators, and what they do about it. We’re blessed with a terrific team for this project: Trevor Deley, Grace Lore, Erin Tolley, Jordan Buffie, Greg Eady and Maite Tabouda

I’m particularly keen to learn from political candidates themselves. For better or worse, many of them are already experts on this topic.

For instance, here is Calgary MP Michelle Rempel’s flowchart for dealing with inquiries and abuse she receives on Twitter.

Expect lots more from me on this topic in the coming months.

New Paper: How Syrian Diaspora Use Digital Media to Pursue Justice

March 20, 2019

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a new article, Networking justice: digitally-enabled engagement in transitional justice by the Syrian diaspora. The article is part of a special issue by the journal  Ethnic and Racial Studies. I’m incredibly grateful for the great leadership and feedback from Maria Koinova and Dženeta Karabegović on this project, and for rich conversations with fellow contributors such as Milana NikolkoJoanna Quinn, Espen Stokke, and Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm.

What’s the article about, you ask? In short, it looks at how Syrian diaspora have used digital media to pursue accountability and truth in response to massive rights violations in Syria… and how the Syrian government and other actors use digitally-enabled tactics to fight these efforts.


Illustration by Kevin Tong /

The article builds on a line of research I began a few years ago with the project The War is Just a Click Away, a series for OpenCanada that looked at how people experienced the Syrian civil war through digital connections.

Here is the abstract and first few paragraphs. I encourage you to check out the full article — and the full special issue — at Ethnic and Racial Studies:


Digital communication technologies (DCTs) introduce new opportunities and challenges for diaspora to advance transitional justice. This article proposes three DCT-enabled mechanisms that shape diaspora engagement with transitional justice politics and processes, developed through an analysis of diaspora responses to rights violations in Syria. First, diaspora can promote transitional justice aims through connective action: loosely-coordinated, transnational mobilizations using social media. Second, DCTs enable diaspora to contribute to crowdsourced documentation of rights violations. Third, diaspora seeking to advance transitional justice may face digital repression by authoritarian governments in their original homelands. The article shows how DCTs may alter the means and opportunities for diaspora to engage in transitional justice activities, including in situations of ongoing conflict or repression in their original homelands. It also demonstrates how digital spaces are strategically engaged by activists, civil society organizations, state governments, and other actors seeking to advance or contest transitional justice aims.


Between 2011 and 2013, a photographer working for the Syrian government took pictures of over 6,000 people allegedly killed in government custody, often after being tortured (Human Rights Watch 2015). The photographer, who used the alias “Caesar,” smuggled these images out of Syria on USB sticks and compact discs.

Foreign governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) used the images to call for Syrian government officials to be held accountable for violations (United Nations Security Council 2014; Human Rights Watch2015), a major attempt to introduce transitional justice amidst a conflict. The images were also shared online among Syrian diaspora, including a Spanish citizen who found a photo of her dead brother and launched a criminal complaint in Spanish courts against senior members of the Syrian government (Entous 2017). It is one of several criminal cases in Europe that use digital evidence of violations in Syria (Human Rights Watch 2017).

As this sketch illustrates, digital communication technologies (DCTs) are enabling new practices of transnational advocacy and action. How might these developments affect the field of transitional justice, and in particular the role that diaspora can play in its processes and politics?

Read more…

The meme-ification of politics: Politicians & their ‘lit’ memes

February 11, 2019

Thanks to Grace Chiang, the main author of this article. Published via The Conversation under a Creative Commons license – here’s the original article.


In November, during a televised debate about electoral reform, British Columbia Premier John Horgan told the audience, “If you were woke, you’d know that pro rep is lit.”

By “pro rep,” he meant “proportional representation,” an alternative to the current first-past-the-post voting system. By “woke,” he meant socially conscious. By “lit,” he meant, according to the Urban Dictionary, “Something that is f—ing amazing in any sense.” The B.C. NDP soon tweeted his remark, and a meme was born.

This is a federal election year, so Canadians should be ready for a meme-filled 2019. Political memes are increasingly prominent in political discourse, and politicians will be using this latest online strategy to attract, infuriate, persuade or bemuse voters.

It’s therefore worthwhile understanding how memes can shape the tone and perceptions of campaigns or policies. And it’s also useful to look at politicians’ recent attempts to use memes for good and ill.

What is a political meme?

A political meme is a purposefully designed visual framing of a position. Memes are a new genre of political communication, and they generally have at least one of two characteristics — they are inside jokes and they trigger an emotional reaction.

Memes work politically if they are widely — or virally — shared, if they help cultivate a sense of belonging to an “in-group” and if they make a compelling normative statement about a public figure or political issue.

Memes can spread rapidly online and into popular culture due to their shareability — they are easily created, consumed, altered and disseminated. They can quickly communicate the creator’s stance on the subject. The stronger the emotional response provoked by a post, the greater the intent to spread it.

Though memes may spread widely, they usually cater to a specific audience who inhabit a “shared sphere of cultural knowledge.” That audience tends to have self-referential language, cultivating an in-group that can decipher the memes and get the “in joke” while those who aren’t in on the joke cannot. (For an excellent display of this, listen to one of the “Yes Yes No” segments on the Reply All podcast, in which the hosts explain complex, multi-layered memes to a confused non-digital native.)

Read more…