If you’re a regular visitor, you’re probably well aware of the controversy surrounding Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and his “Lawful Access” Bill, otherwise known as Bill C-30 or the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. Along with protests from a wide range of groups, a Twitter account dedicated to embarrassing Toews, @Vikileaks30, (were there 29 others?) popped up around the same time.
To hear the mainstream media tell it, you’d think the Vikileaks account was the social media volley at government ever in this country: “For the first time, the power of social media has caught a Canadian government in its cross-hairs”, CTV’s Craig Oliver writes breathlessly. Except the last time it happened – in 2010 – when Prime Minister Harper prorouged Parliament.
Clearly Mr. Oliver should come visit here more often. Back in 2010, it was Facebook. This time folks are speaking out on Twitter. While protest via social medis is certainly not new, the Vikileaks business has added a new side to online public discourse. The whole messy affair has brought a number of issues to the forefront, which can serve both as a lesson and a warning:
Twitter Is The New Brown Envelope
The medium might have changed, but the method is as old as time. Before, political operatives would slip a salacious piece of information under the door or a reporter or place a well-timed phone call. Later, people published anonymous websites attacking opponents. Then bloggers offered critiques behind usernames; then came YouTube videos and now Twitter.
Twitter is an excellent vehicle to spread these kinds of messages. Why? Twitter is a “target-rich environment”: the mainstream media in North America are heavy users, as are the political and pundit class. You can now drop a political hand grenade and the impact will be felt almost immediately. Further, unlike brown envelopes of the past, a reporter and their editors are no longer gatekeepers, deciding whether to run with the story or not. Twitter users decide whether to pick it up a yarn or ignore it.
Zero Barriers To Entry
Now anyone with Internet access can become a key figure in a story. The chap/gal behind the Vikileaks account only had to do some digging through some publicly available court records, which any motivated individual could do. That was the hard part. Getting it distributed was the easiest part of the whole affair.
This is good and bad. It is good because it makes the entire system much more accountable. No longer do you need a relationship with the media to impact a story – just a Twitter account. Of course, we now see that there is also no editorial filter on these kinds of platforms, so the attacks can easily become bitter and personal. And make no mistake: they will happen more frequently.
Getting Personal Is A Losing Strategy
Speaking of personal, Vikileaks is a cautionary tale: getting personal is not a wise strategy. While the purpose of the Vikileaks account was to turn the tables on the same Minister who is requesting incredibly broad access to the online history of the Canadian public, it was a stupid move to publish details of Toews’ divorce. What would have been much more clever (although I certainly don’t endorse such a tactic) would have been to publish Toews’ phone records, Internet history off his laptop or even the Minister’s Amazon purchases.
Instead, Vikileaks (and now Anonymous) have decided to focus on Toews himself. This only serves to focus the discussion away from the legislation and onto the spokesperson. In their latest attack, Anonymous seems to be picking up where Vikileaks left off, with the threat to “expose” Minister Toews’ and to publish the “skeletons in his closet”. By focusing on Toews’ personal life, rather than the legislation at hand, they are making Toews a sympathetic figure. There is now more talk about the antics of opponents than about the legislation itself.
Action Not Talk
In the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US, the legislation remained front and centre. Rather than engaging in personality politics, opponents kept the focus on the changes Congress were debating. They also leveraged technology to allow supporters of their position to contact elected officials directly. A significant volume of activity was generated, with individuals calling, e-mailing, writing, texting and visiting their elected representatives.
The opposition to Bill C-30 would be well advised to take a page from the SOPA playbook and concentrate their efforts on getting opponents to directly contact MPs in Ottawa. They seem to have generated some solid numbers with a petition, but that pales in comparison to MPs getting phone calls or visits from the constituents that elected them. Petitions are easy to complete and easy to ignore.
At the very least, the Vikileaks matter has shown that the political landscape online is a nasty and unpredictable place. But it also shows that just like offline campaigns, message discipline is important and valuable. Focus should remain on how changes to policy will affect the individual, while offering those people the chance to voice their opposition quickly and directly.
Right now, the debate has become a sideshow, with personal attacks, threats and dirty tricks being the focus on discussion rather than the content of the legislation. Was that the intent of Vikileaks? If so, mission accomplished.
But it won’t help you win the larger war.