Politics

Toronto City Council Social Media: The Plastic Bag Effect

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During his conversation at our Campaign School last month, Toronto city councillor Paul Ainslie outlined his communication strategy with his Scarborough East constituents — along with how he tries to reach out to city as a whole. Becoming chair of the Government Management Committee supplied Ainslie with further motivation to use social media to stay in contact with a wider-range of #TOpoli-watchers. As a result, he arguably emerged as the most accessible ally of Mayor Rob Ford, at least when it comes to leveraging some of the tools at his fingertips.

By contrast, Willowdale councillor David Shiner — a 15-year fixture of the downtown Clamshell whose tenure predates amalgamation — is among those local politicians who have never sought an online presence beyond their their for re-election, if at all. Shiner’s own website is now only helpful in the sense that it indicates that you are better off calling or emailing than looking there for any indication of what he does, let alone what he stands for.

Campaign School: Where the System Comes to Get Understood

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Campaign School was created as a cornerstone of our Hacking Reality series after Idil Burale, a charter member of the Academy of the Impossible, expressed a desire for a program that could enhance her ambitions to run for office in her riding of Etobicoke North.

With a next election not guaranteed to happen until the municipal vote in October 2014 , focusing on such a goal might have once seemed premature — yet social media has transformed the narrative. This new direct pipeline to any politician worth heeding means that campaigning can no longer be limited to the five weeks before voters cast their ballots. Now, it is a permanent state of mind for anyone who wants to hang on to their claims to serve the public.

So far, the most popular Sunday afternoon sessions of Campaign School have featured guests, including MPs Andrew Cash, Carolyn Bennett and Peggy Nash, city councillors Shelley Carroll and Adam Vaughan, plus a talk with Brian Mulroney's press secretary Bill Fox. The next visitor in this series on Sunday (May 6) will be Paul Ainslie, who has emerged as an intriguing personality in the current Rob Ford administration at Toronto City Hall, both as chair of the management committee and prolific presence on Twitter.

Robocall Blogger Unfuckwithable Anticipates 'A Spiro Agnew Moment'

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While controversy surrounding federal election robocalls has just been stirred up over the past two weeks — largely due to the tenacity of a couple of Ottawa Citizen reporters — Brian-Michel LaRue has actually been wondering out loud about them since after the election last May.

The name of LaRue's blog, Unfuckwithable, may limit the number of broadcast media references to his efforts, although notice has been growing. Right now, the 29-year-old native of Montreal — a current contributor to Le Monde who previously worked for the CBC — also happens to be living in Miami. But he was asked to take a quick trip to Ottawa this week to give evidence to Elections Canada.

Links to the Tumblr-hosted website have appeared with increasing frequency on Twitter, where @unfuckwithabIe (the second last letter is capital-'I' not 'l') has a relatively modest follower count, although increased attention is being paid to references to tips about "Julian Fantino's Spiro Agnew moment" — based on an apparent affidavit although summed up for now as a one-act play.

Robot Politicians May Be Required for Open Government to Work

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The inaugural PS Engage learning and networking event in Ottawa on Monday provided a stage for the Canadian government to announce formal guidelines for playing the social media game.

Yet the lukewarm reception to the idea that layers of bureaucracy must continue to be involved in the most elementary interactions with the public served as a reminder that the future of communications can't be left to career policymakers alone.

Fortuitously, that evening, a second Metaviews salon in the capital city picked up where the October event left off, by asking the question "Will There Ever Be Open Government?"

This question wasn't going to be definitively answered in one night, of course, but a mixture of insiders and outsiders — all of whom have wondered about a more effective evolution of online public service — seized the opportunity to swap thoughts.

Disruption was the central theme of one conversation — as everyone in the room has closely observed the transformation of all media industries over the past decade. Open Government can similarly provide a breakthrough for the younger generation of civil servants. Currently, the way most of them interact on the job compared to in their personal lives remains a century apart.

Stephen Harper is Still Turning Down Your Friend Request

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Government could never have invented something like social media. Yet, more than anyone else, politicians are expected to be accountable to the public when using it.

Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor was recently inspired — by a similar Slate monitor of Sarah Palin — to track potential Facebook comment deletions on the part of Stephen Harper's squad. And he was rewarded with evidence that many comments critical of the prime minister didn't last long — although some remained.

Should there be a federal standard for which responses are considered acceptable? What if they're attached to a page that fully verified where the commenter was coming from?

Curiously, there are two different official Facebook pages for Harper. The more popular one — with over 67,000 followers — is run by the Conservative party, while a more obscure one is maintained by the Prime Minister's Office, even though their content has been nearly identical. So, the lack of civility might have something to do with its assertively partisan origins.

These issues related to effective communication have now become an inextricable part of the discussion surrounding Government 2.0.

Occupy Utopia: Trouble For One Spells Trouble For All

Police carting away the garbage of an Occupy Nova Scotia tent

Halifax, home of Occupy Nova Scotia, has been one of the first Occupy protests in Canada forcibly cleared out by law enforcement. Their eviction will probably not be the last, and it forces the movement to ask itself some questions. But it should force the public, who may or may not feel part of the “99 percent,” to ask themselves some questions, too.

Making 'Open Government' About Actual Government

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Social media expert Tony Clement played off his Twitter reputation Tuesday morning at the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference in Ottawa. Clearly, the new Treasury Board president is seen as the most qualified Conservative cabinet spokesperson for the federal Open Government initiatives, a plan for which he promised would be presented next March.

For the mainstream press, the main takeaway appears to have been a call for the federal government to move toward a paperless operation. But there is nothing radical anymore about moving information to a screen.

Mercifully, as we've seen in other disrupted industries, a change in delivery systems provides the opportunity to transform the substance of the communication into what the public wants.

Consultations will be involved in the process of piecing the plan together, promised Clement, which is certainly better than the paradox of keeping deliberations about Open Government closed.

Yet, the discussion was already advanced 12 hours ahead of Clement's keynote, at a Metaviews discussion event in Ottawa, titled "Beyond the Kool-Aid."

Data Bodies to Real Bodies: the Aesthetics of Online Activism

Ricardo DominguezI’m sure it was intentional that Ricardo Dominguez wore a shirt emblazoned with the symbol of DC comics’ super-speedy hero The Flash to a seminar on the aesthetics of code and internet activism. His lecture touched on flashmobs and hyperspeed internet communication, and the swiftness and dexterity with which he moved from topic to topic suggested a mind that moves at super-speed as well. It was only appropriate that he had a symbolic graphical representation of the content of his discussion splashed right across his chest.

This Friday, co-founder of the Electronic Disturbance Theatre Ricardo Dominguez delivered his last lecture in a three-day long series of workshops on the intersection of art and code at Ryerson University. He jumped right in and seemed to begin his lecture in medias res, and I quickly realized the disadvantages of missing the previous seminars. As he seemed to be finishing off a topic that he had started in the previous day’s lecture, there were many fleeting references to concepts and terminology previously defined. What ended up being covered was a brief history of “browser-based aesthetics” followed by a response to an earlier demand for practical avenues that could be taken by aspiring cyber activists.

Trending With the Tea Party in the Ontario Provincial Election

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A political movement whose members would cheer the death of an uninsured patient seems like something that Canadians can band together to dislike.

But what influence does the Tea Party actually have north of the border?

Those watching the Ontario provincial election unfold might be led to believe that it represents a colossal threat. Former premiers Bob Rae and Ernie Eves both recently evoked the movement in their criticism of the direction that right-of-centre politics have taken in Canada.

WIth their help, Conservative leader Tim Hudak has been branded by the Liberal war room as "Tea Party Tim." Of course, the only real menace to Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty is the notion that his constituents will express their displeasure at the ballot box.

Still, it's telling that the readiest shorthand to undermine Hudak with needs to be imported from another country. Vague allusions of bad spelling, casual racism and messianic faith in Sarah Palin are somehow enough to dissuade Ontario from voting in someone new.

Sarah Thomson: Toronto's Queen of All Vanity Media

No matter how many citizen journalism startups, free blogging tools and social media platforms are out there, the internet still lacks the power of a printing press.

Sarah Thomson, publisher of Women's Post, certainly understands the clout of her little-known magazine over online outlet. Why would she leverage its cover for her second annual election bid? Because the tactic worked when she used the forum to proclaim herself "Toronto's next mayor."

Running for the provincial Liberals in the NDP stronghold of Trinity-Spadina, where she has a slightly greater chance of winning — which may not be saying much — the distribution of her latest issue to homes around the riding has led bigger outlets to speculate whether the tactic is ethical.

None of this attention would've emerged if Thomson's alleged dream diary, about the choice between "Stability or Risk" at the helm of Ontario, been a blog post or Facebook note. The perception that comes with the front page of something (it's "The Post!") is still more valuable for the voters she wants to reach.

The Toronto Star has concurrently backed a community blogger project for the provincial election, Speak Your Mind, on the premise that every one of 107 ridings could use a volunteer correspondent to herd the online discussion. But the website commissioned to coordinate the contributions, The Mark News, has struggled to establish influence by providing a wider forum for professional pontification. Websites built on telling people what they should think simply aren't worth very much on their own.

Single Click Government

I've spent the better part of the last five years working at the confluence of public policy, people, and technology and can say with certainty that the experts in the field agree: the proliferation of digital communication technologies is fundamentally reshaping all sectors of society. While this may be most apparent in the newspaper, music, or television industries, to think that governments are somehow immune to the changing environment is irresponsible. Thus far governments have managed to operate under the radar, espousing collaboration as the new modus operandi of the public service while hiding in the murky rhetoric of ‘doing more with less'; but frankly it’s no longer a viable option for dealing with the coming change.

Digital is different, so let's do things differently

If you don't believe me, look at what is happening across the pond in the United Kingdom where budgets are being slashed on average of 20% but up to 35% in some cases. The harsh reality, as the Brits are learning, is that they can't even afford to do more with less. Being more collaborative isn't the same thing as being innovative. Similarly, all the collaboration in the world doesn't break you out of old mental models or help you re-imagine your role in a rapidly and ever changing society. We need to cut through the noise of ‘greater efficiency through greater collaboration’ and the rhetoric of ‘doing more with less’ and focus instead on doing things fundamentally differently. Given the profound impact of digital communication technologies on our society, I think that doing things differently starts with cultivating a better understanding of how digital is reshaping what citizens expect from their public institutions and how public institutions can best respond to those needs.

We Built This City by Blocking Trolls

Calgary.ca earned some attention this week for being transformed into what a press release deigned to claim is the "first search-based website in Canada."

The venture is powered by Google Search Appliance, even though the home page looks more like rival engine Bing, with the search bar augmented with large photos of the resurgent city.

Indeed, the effort combined Microsoft Share Point software with other Google tools, and was highlighted on the promotional blog for the Search Appliance. Predictably, the new format was motivated by complaints that would be familiar to anyone who ever wrestled with a government website.

While the launch fit into the outreach narrative threaded by Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, his Toronto counterpart was exposed for being trigger-happy on Facebook — even if Rob Ford has delegated social media management to others in his office.

Questioning the fact that Ford showed up to dance in his dress pants at the Caribbean Carnival, while steering clear of anything to do with Pride week, was not welcome on the wall. Asking for answers about his behaviour is apparently enough to have your "like" undone.

Amidst the other communication-related shenanigans surrounding Toronto City Hall, though — including a Ford administration support group on Facebook where the administrator, city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, promised to block the input of any communist he could smell — the idea that the elected leader of the city would stifle discussion from citizens couldn't stir up any new outrage.

Meslin For Mayor

"I am concerned that we have lost a decade," writes Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett on the Huffington Post, at the end of a lengthy blog post in the aftermath of the annual summer conference held by the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

"We need leaders with the open minds of Calgary Mayor Nenshi and citizens like Dave Meslin who are prepared to show us the way."

Toronto now has a mayor who takes pride in not opening his mind. So, the implication is that Meslin is the natural choice to take his place.

Besides, since when do mere "citizens" get mentioned in the same breath as an elected official? Calgary's new face was also seen as a mere citizen leading up to his election nine months ago.

And the new social media politics played by Naheed Nenshi includes sharing regular evidence of the celebrity perks that come with leading a city.

A photo tweeted of Nenshi with Meslin, as the pair embarked on a canoe journey around Lake Couchiching at the YMCA Geneva Park, showed two friendly fellas eager to paddle into the future together. For them, the past decade hasn't been "lost" at all — they spent it building up their bases.

Without a full-time gig, Meslin has continued to play the perennial outsider, at the forefront of raising issues related to public space and the accessibility of civic leaders.

When he got a turn to speak, towards the end of the "citizen filibuster" at Toronto City Hall, his issue wasn't the budget cuts under consideration. Rather, he lectured Mayor Rob Ford about how the overnight meeting excluded participants whose responsibilities prevented them from hanging around past dawn.

Open Government at City Hall

Political Games

National Post GeoPollster ARGDuring this week's Metaviews teleseminar I was informed about the existence of The National Post's GeoPollster, a foursquare style political Alternate Reality Game whose main goal is to increase voter turnout and interest in Canadian politics. I was immediately interested.

This is because for the most part the political parties, civil society groups and mainstream journalists in Canada seem uninterested, or unable, to use new media effectively. Sure each party uses Twitter and Facebook, but they do so badly. Earlier today Luke described how Micheal Ignatieff's Twitter kept pumping out status updates during this week's debate – effectively undermining the personal nature of social media. Iggy's Twitter was effectively a simulacrum of the real Iggy.

So if the political parties can barely understand how to use Twitter effectively, what hope is there for them to use videogames well? Not much.

This is to their detriment however, because videogames are ideally suited to political tasks. This is because they can engage in procedural rhetoric – something I have discussed at length before. Procedural rhetoric uses what computers do best – run procedures – to engage in arguments about how the world works. It helps that politics is all about ideology, which videogames happen to be excellent at expressing.

Ian Bogost in his book Persuasive Games says that “Political videogames use procedural rhetorics to expose how political structures operate, or how they fail to operate, or how they could or should operate.”