Like many progressive women politicians, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has been subject to harassment and abuse from the right (Photo: Chatham House, Creative Commons).

Is there a common thread running between reports Friday that a spike in “inauthentic activity” on social media just before the Alberta provincial election came from unidentified backers of the United Conservative Party and news stories Saturday about harassment of federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna?

It would be impossible to make an evidentiary link between the use of disinformation bots on social media by supporters of conservative political parties and violent threats directed at women candidates and activists.

Former Alberta premier Alison Redford (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Still, there’s something more than timing that suggests the stream of false stories designed to rile up the conservative base, often reposted by high-profile conservatives, and the toxic abuse that sometimes threatens to overwhelm women candidates and office holders, liberal ones in particular, both have their roots in the role social media plays in the ecosystem of conservative activism.

The analysis of the Alberta election by the Rapid Response Mechanism Canada made headlines when it identified “inauthentic, coordinated behaviour” not just by “known national far-right and hate group actors” but from within “the community of UCP supporters.”

Former Alberta premier Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The group behind the report — an initiative of the G7 industrialized nations to coordinate identifying, preventing and responding to foreign efforts to subvert Western democracies — was very careful to note political parties could not be tied to this activity. But then, that’s why such accounts use anonymous bots, isn’t it?

It’s a shame the RRMC chose not to name the sources of this activity it had identified.

Still, the many connections among members of Canadian Conservative parties’ strategic brain trusts and social media organizations associated with false news, hateful speech, and “lock ’er up” rallies are pretty well understood.

Likewise, while the story about Ms. McKenna’s recent encounter with a threatening man calling her “Climate Barbie” — a term that may have been first tweeted by former Saskatchewan MP and Harper Government cabinet minister Gerry Ritz — is appalling, it’s not a particular surprise to anyone who has followed Alberta politics since the elections of Alison Redford and Rachel Notley.

Environmental activist Tzeporah Berman (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Of course, this is not just a Canadian phenomenon. But the use of violent language on social media, sometimes translating into actual violence, is becoming a particular problem for women in politics in North America, and, statistically, especially for those who hold progressive views.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever be told, but it would be interesting to be able to compare the statistics for threats against the current, male, Alberta premier — Jason Kenney — and his two recent female predecessors.

Add to this the propensity of prominent male conservatives not merely to be driven over the edge by women who disagree with them, but to think encouraging supporters to join in highly personal attacks on them is a legitimate political tactic.

Consider Mr. Kenney’s use of a poster labelling environmental activist Tzeporah Berman as “an enemy of the oilsands.”

“Since @JKenney announced his $30 million warroom to attack environmental advocates & this poster of me was held up at his press conference I have had death threats, misogynist & sexual attacks on social media,” Ms. Berman tweeted in June. “This is what that kind of fear mongering & hate does.”

Consider People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier’s recent tweets calling 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg “clearly mentally unstable,” which may have been a reference to her Asperger’s diagnosis or simply vituperation, and telling supporters “she should be denounced and attacked.”

Climate justice activist Emma Jackson (Photo: Twitter).

Or consider Matt Wolf, Mr. Kenney’s executive director of issues management, who published an unflattering screenshot of Edmonton climate justice activist Emma Jackson at an education rally, and accused her of working to “sabotage our economy” for her views on the environment.

“Cool to see Kenney’s Executive Director of Issues Management doxxing me on the internet, really love the way he captured my ‘before and after the UCP’ look,” Ms. Jackson shot back with better humour than Mr. Wolf deserved.

It’s unclear if Mr. Wolf is considered part of the premier’s war room, about which little has been heard lately, or if the quality of his social media comments reflect the tactics it is likely to deploy.

But it should by now be obvious to everyone the dangerous responses such attacks provoke among parts of the conservative base. This behaviour by people in responsible public positions needs to stop.

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  1. This a counter-intelligence problem. Shadowy persons deeply involved with the UCP and provincial parties (I’m looking at you, Preston Manning and Stephen Harper) are part of a coordinated international campaign of subversion, corruption of elections and stochastic terrorism. They know exactly what they are doing. The only thing that could stop them the overwhelming power of the state, a power that they themselves have furthered with sweeping anti-terrorism legislation. It is inconceivable to me that an elected government would not make use of this power to squash these vermin. Their movements can be tracked, their money traced, their communications monitored. Keep that up for a few years, and it would be astonishing if they did not knit the rope with which to hang them.

  2. From the CBC News website,”On September 2, Bernier posted a series of tweets in which he said Thunberg is ‘clearly unstable, not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive eating disorder, depression and lethargy and she lives in a constant state of fear.’
    After widespread pushback against Bernier’s remarks, the PPC leader took to Twitter today to claim he did not mean to attack Thunberg personally…”

    “Clearly unstable, not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive eating disorder, depression and lethargy and she lives in a constant state of fear.”
    Not personal, Maxime? Wow.

  3. People have lost the ability to effectively debate and express their opinions using words it is all emotion and very base behaviour. Look at the lock her up chant, originally aimed at Clinton by Trump supporters and some Bernie supporters. Both groups seemed to have legitimate reasons for calling for Clinton to be locked up. It then was used against Notley by people who we can only assume uncritically listen and watch to many far right radio and YouTube videos. No legitimate reason to call for her arrest existed, this was amplified on social media and used to dehumanize her and the NDP. Once the political opposition is dehumanized anything goes activating those who purely operate on emotion without intellectual capacity or restraint.
    Phrases like conspiracy theorist and denier have been used to accomplish the same thing. The conspiracy theorist term has interesting origins from within US intelligence in an attempt to discredit those that questioned the Warren Commission report. Now it is used to dehumanize and marginalize anyone that questions the official government narrative, which we should all do. The denier label is used in a similar way to dehumanize anyone that questions the approved narrative of climate change. Denier is very obviously equated with Nazis and we all know it is alright to violently oppose Nazis Brad Pitt told us so in his movie. Remember that the next time you use these terms to describe your political opponents, who’s agenda are you spreading and what are the consequences of this dehumanization?

    1. Pianists are people who play piano. Liars are people who lie. Deniers are people who deny. Simple.
      There are examples of denial in any number of spheres. The association of the term with the Holocaust is not unique or privileged.

      Deniers are immune to scientific evidence. Deniers invent spurious arguments to sow confusion and manufacture doubt. Deniers engage in disinformation campaigns and pander to wilful ignorance. Deniers invent scandals and hatch conspiracy theories. Deniers attack and threaten scientists. Deniers undermine public trust in scientific results and science as an institution.

      The denialist playbook has been used over and over again by industry in order to protect profits: on leaded gas, acid rain, the ozone hole and CFCs, and, notoriously, tobacco. In some cases, the same “scientists” are hired to do “facsimile science”.

      Around the world, tobacco companies have been taken to court for their deliberate campaigns of deception that increased harm, at huge cost to public health and the public purse.
      The analog with climate change denial is clear. The fossil fuel industry has used many of the same tactics to sow doubt and confuse the public about global warming. And now fossil fuel companies like Exxon-Mobil are being sued.
      Let’s call a spade a spade.

  4. Another thing that really pi$$es me off about the attacks on Min. McKenna, and her government, aside from the vituperative nature of the trolling, is that that the same time that the Grits are being slagged by the right for allegedly stalling pipelines — as though any government could direct the courts to decide cases the way it would prefer — they are also being equally slagged by the left & the environmentalists … for building pipelines. I am hard pressed to know what they could do differently to please their critics, since their critics all seem to want exactly opposite things to happen.

    As for the physical threats against Ms McKenna, I feel for her. I think she is an effective Cabinet Minister, and deserves at least a seat on the front bench of the next Liberal-led minority government … or a prominent critic assignment if they end up in Opposition.

  5. Not too much of a surprise about all that inauthentic social media activity around the last Alberts election. The only surprise to me was that it was not noticed earlier. Some of those grassroots are as inauthentic as well a grassroots guarantee, a kamikaze candidate and his financial donors, the UCP leadership e-mail list … and so on. I could go on, but I think I have made my point. The UCP and some of its supporters are quite a hall of mirrors, where nothing is much as it seems.

    The danger of unfiltered, unmoderated and unedited social media posts in damaging civil discourse in democratic countries is already well known and I suspect one of two things will happen. First, it will hopefully be somehow reined in or second people on other extremes will start to use it as shamelessly as those on the right are now.

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