Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Voting with your tweet?

Toews' Twitter flap may show social media as new grassroots political force

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First it was a story about the dregs of a cabinet minister's divorce details, splashed on a mysterious Twitter account.

Then it was a story about a grassroots campaign to unleash a steady stream of personal information, a tongue-in-cheek protest against an online surveillance bill critics say erodes Canadians' rights to privacy. But at its heart, the last 48 hours of media frenzy over tweets, taunts and everything Canadians told Vic Toews were a story about a conversation.

Of course, not everyone liked the tone, or the tenor -- especially once the plot grew thicker. On Thursday, the Ottawa Citizen reported the Vikileaks tweets had been traced to a Government of Canada-owned IP address. The Twitter account was shut down Friday night.

On Friday, Toews went on the offensive, writing House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to demand an investigation into the source. But no one could confirm what rules the person behind Vikileaks -- if they do work on Parliament Hill -- would have broken.

In question period Friday, the Conservatives took the attack to the NDP. "It is a little bit rich for a New Democratic Party member of Parliament to stand in this place and talk about attacks and talk about personal information," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said. "Not only have they stooped to the lowest of the lows, but they have been running this nasty Internet dirty-trick campaign with taxpayers' money."

Baird demanded the NDP accept responsibility and apologize, though there is no proof someone from the NDP is behind Vikileaks. The IP address could have been used by almost anyone who works for the Canadian government, including MPs and staff from any of the parties, as well as non-political staff.

The NDP demanded the government apologize for making unfounded allegations. NDP justice critic Jack Harris noted the Conservatives would not make the allegation outside the House of Commons, where what they say is protected by parliamentary privilege. He suggested the Conservatives playing the victim is an attempt to take the spotlight off the lawful-access legislation and the backlash it is receiving.

But as politicians wrangled over the fallout from Bill C-30 -- a piece of legislation Toews champions that will make it easier for police to glean information about Internet subscribers without a warrant, among other provisions -- the question bubbled beneath the surface: Would it make a difference? Could all the voices really turn the tide on a bill that, the government hinted, it could be open to changing?

"Does it work?" asked Heather LaMarre, a professor at the University of Minnesota. "Well, you're calling me."

As a journalism and mass-communications professor, LaMarre studies this stuff for a living. This year, she and a group of colleagues are publishing research on how social media have impacted United States congressional elections. But the medium of social media -- especially Twitter -- is still very new, she stresses. And there's a lot researchers still don't know.

"We're constantly trying to figure out if online participation has off-line effects," LaMarre said Thursday night. "Are there meaningful consequences? We're getting mixed results. In some instances we find that there's this really strong, fat blip online -- but really, it's just catharsis. (People) are angry, and there's a huge emotional uproar (on social media) for a day or two... but it's just catharsis."

But sometimes, it isn't. Sometimes, LaMarre said, the dialogue builds and grows and digs in deep, and then you have something like the U.S. experienced with the Stop Online Piracy Act, a controversial bill that was shelved after online "blackout" protests.

On the other hand, LaMarre said, despite months of stout online opposition, it wasn't until Google and Amazon and other heavyweights started indicating their support for the SOPA protests that U.S. senators began pulling their names off of the bill.

And so it goes: Some online movements take off from the grassroots and push the power brokers into action. But just as many fizzle out, their impact more uncertain, or perhaps non-existent. "We don't exactly know the trigger yet, when it lives and when it dies," LaMarre said. "Twitter will be gone before we know that. So we have to ask that question at the broader level of social media."

But the most reverberating lesson emerging from the Bill C-30 fracas could be how the dialogue has flipped the power, as traditional media turn to chase the hottest topic of the day.

In 2009, a study from the University of Illinois scoured the flow of links between traditional and online-only media, albeit with admittedly limited data, and concluded the power of traditional media to set the news agenda was crumbling.

In the dense language of academia, it's called "intermedia agenda-setting." In plain-speak, it means instead of only speaking to the masses, the old media now listen to the millions for its cues on what stories to tell -- and the adoption magnifies the message being told at the grassroots.

For writers, it can be a tough job to tackle, translating ideas that flow so freely in the impulsive, interactive social media into the static and deliberate formats of print, radio, or television. But slowly, the pieces come together. It may be a YouTube video of a soldier asking a celebrity for a date or a Winnipeg teen who made his own Christmas music video.

Sometimes, it may just be a story about a conversation, shared by thousands on Twitter, about the minutiae of day-to-day life -- but buoyed by a sense of outrage over the fear their privacy is being taken away.

And sometimes, it could even be a media hijacking, sprung by a savvy political operative working from behind a pseudonym and a stream of tweets. Or not.

"The social media (are) in a bubble," LaMarre said. "It might not have a huge effect on public opinion. But it seems to have a huge effect on what mainstream media cover. Social media now are setting the agenda of what you (traditional media) should attend to."

Where that ends up, no one yet knows. New research, LaMarre said, has shown everyday citizens are drawing a sense of strength from the idea of their own place in the grassroots: the kind of strength, for instance, that inspired a Prince Edward Island man to get on Twitter and tell his friends to Tell Vic Everything.

But just like what happens with all other types of media, that, too, can be manipulated. Where does that end up for democracy? Only time -- and research -- will tell. "There's sort of a perception that social media have become the great equalizer between the elites and the common person," LaMarre said. "It's audience as creator, producer and distributor of information, not just consumer. The audience plays a totally different role... and everybody's trying to figure out what that means."

-- with files from Mia Rabson

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2012 A4

History

Updated on Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 8:55 AM CST: adds photo

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