by Tim Harper – Toronto Star
Phil Trotter, the federal NDP candidate in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, is not a racist.
I have no reason to doubt him, but the fact that he had to plead his case to a Star columnist is a cautionary tale heading into the federal election about inexperienced candidates, social media and the toxic mess they can become.
Vetting of candidates has proven to be an inexact science. Even if properly vetted, no party can babysit every candidate every day during a long campaign.
It is perhaps ironic that, as all parties learn to harness the power of social media, their candidates are finding new ways to trip over the same platforms.
There is nothing new, novel or mysterious about any of this, but lessons, some harder than others, are being learned regularly by those running for office who don’t seem to grasp the permanency of inadvisable online posts.
Take the curious case of Trotter.
It began last Thursday, in the wake of the resignation of the Liberal candidate in the riding, Susan Watt.
That led to the usual Facebook trash-talking, with some New Democrats tweaking the Liberals about a campaign in disarray and then a predictable riposte about party leader Tom Mulcair once being a provincial Liberal in Quebec.
And then came the response from the candidate, posted on the “Phil Trotter, NDP” Facebook page, the one adorned with the candidate and the smiling Mulcair: “I was a very racist right-winger as a youth. Over the years my views have changed quite a bit as I gained new information and perspective. That’s not a bad thing.”
Redemption is one thing, but an NDP candidate who spent his youth as “a very racist right-winger” might want to keep that particular biographical nugget under wraps.
Turns out Trotter didn’t post that message at all.
Instead, a campaign volunteer, a 33-year-old writer and member of the NDP riding executive, Tim Ellis, posted it under Trotter’s name (he had administrative access to Trotter’s Facebook page) and he is quite open about some of the “shoddy things” he fell into growing up in the all-white community of Eden, N.Y.
So we know that Trotter’s key aide was once a very racist right-winger, but a stay at Penn State University and the U.S. army changed his views, but what we don’t know is why so many campaigns run afoul of social media.
In May alone, a newly elected Alberta New Democrat, Deborah Drever, was suspended from caucus after an Instagram post of hers surfaced. She had tossed a homophobic slur on a photo of Progressive Conservatives Ric McIver and Jim Prentice.
It came on the heels of social media images of her in front of a pro-marijuana T-shirt and a highly questionable photo on the front of a garage band album.
Like Trotter’s bogus post, her Instagram photo had been deleted from her account but, as should now be clear, deleting offensive or questionable photos or texts never really kills them.
But sometimes it is the party that errs.
In Papineau, Que., Conservatives had to remove Chris Lloyd as their candidate to challenge Justin Trudeau after it was revealed he was a performance artist who had publicly stated he was prepared to “mess with” the Conservatives.
He did it every day, posting dubious messages to Stephen Harper, including a fake cheque for $30 billion to pay for the F-35 fighter jets.
As his satire escalated, his fingers were all over social media. Conservative vetters never found them.
Social media campaigns have helped dump the so-called “tampon tax,” given rise to the Idle No More movement and fuelled opposition to the Conservatives’ anti-terror bill, C-51.
The government uses it to sell Stephen Harper to voters directly on YouTube or for ministers such as Pierre Poilievre to sell tax cuts. All parties are mining data about potential voters from various websites.
We are getting close to the day when candidates will send you direct text messages if you are in a bank and even contemplated a financial donation to their candidate, according to the Washington Post.
But it’s a double-edged sword and there will be candidacies killed this year because of social media mistakes.
The NDP accepts Trotter’s explanation – with the reminder about posting in public places.
When contacted by The Star, Trotter, a lawyer with a specialty in refugees who provides free legal services to charitable organizations said he was “shocked . . . I’m really shook up by this.”
He won’t be the last one to be shaken and stirred by social media in 2015.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@nutgraf1
Copyright: 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services