Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Caldwell's double life in the Twittersphere

The problem with twits and trolls

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BRANDON -- In fairy tales, a troll is often a creature with an ugly disposition and even uglier appearance that lives in caves or under bridges. On the Internet, a troll is a person who posts offensive messages on social media, seeking to upset others or provoke an angry response.

While it is generally believed that Internet trolls hurl their toxic commentary from the comfort of their parents' basements, it appears that one troll has been doing so from his office at the Manitoba legislature.

Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell is Premier Greg Selinger's legislative assistant, with special responsibilities for Western Manitoba. He is also, according to the Brandon Sun, one of "a small collective of prominent NDP activists" that operates the "@WMNewDemocrat" Twitter account.

While Caldwell's role in the account has been confirmed through other sources, nobody else has acknowledged any such role. He did not respond to a request for comment, nor to a request that he identify others who posted comments via the account.

That's a problem for the four-term MLA, as it fuels the inference that it may not actually be a multi-person account, but rather Caldwell acting alone. Second, there is nobody else to accept or share responsibility for comments made via that account-- and there is plenty to take responsibility for.

For more than a year, the @WMNewDemocrat account has targeted and harassed others with commentary that has ranged from annoying to slanderous. When a prominent Manitoban received a judicial appointment, the account responded that the appointee, who I won't name, "has a sold record (sic) as a hypocrite, adulterer and fraud. A perfect #CPC choice." (#CPC is a Twitter abbreviation for the Conservative Party of Canada.)

While the account regularly posts flattering photos of Caldwell, it said this about former Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed: "Tweed was probably the most despised & despicable #Con politician ever elected here. Loathed by all."

Brandon city councillor Stephen Montague has been a constant recipient of invective from the @WMNewDemocrat account. When he announced earlier this month that he would not be seeking re-election, the account responded: "Your record creeping @MayorShari over four years & regularly embarrassing #bdnmb on national media is enough." (@MayorShari is Brandon mayor Shari Decter Hirst, while #bdnmb is the Twitter abbreviation for Brandon)

Montague says he was disappointed to learn of Caldwell's role in the account. "The guy is my MLA", he says. "We're supposed to be working together for the betterment of Brandon. To find out that he may have been behind those personal attacks, doing it anonymously, is really disturbing."

Caldwell regularly posts comments and photos via two other Twitter accounts that bear his name. What purpose would be served by the @WMNewDemocrat account? "You only do that when you know what you're doing is wrong" says Montague, "and you don't want people to know you're the one doing it."

Even if that is the case, Caldwell's participation in the @WMNewDemocrat account neither violates the law nor any rules governing MLA conduct. That is because there is no law, code or regulation that prohibits such behaviour by MLAs.

Many would argue there should be such rules, pointing out that the Selinger government recently passed a law to protect school-aged children from all forms of bullying, including cyber bullying. There are also laws and regulations that ban bullying in the workplace, including the public service. Shouldn't MLAs be governed by the same rules as they impose on others?

At an intuitive level, the argument makes sense. At a practical level, however, it collapses.

The conduct Caldwell engaged in is merely a variation of the offensive conduct that many MLAs regularly engage in, most notably during daily question period sessions. The only difference is that Caldwell hid behind a pseudonym. It may have been cowardly, but it was far from unusual behaviour for a politician.

Legislation could potentially curb such conduct, but there is a more effective solution. If Manitobans are genuinely offended by MLAs engaging in offensive behaviour online, or in their daily interaction with the public and other politicians, they should stop voting for them.

If they want to keep trolls out of the legislature, they should stop electing them.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon. Twitter: @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2014 A11

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