Don’t be the troll

Olivia Chow’s staff has removed 312 comments from her Facebook page since she registered to run for mayor of Toronto.

It’s the highest number of Facebook page deletions among the five main candidates and a Star investigation of the deletions shows Chow has been subjected to a torrent of racist, misogynistic and abusive comments.

The most comments removed from a single wall posting was 52 on March 13 — the day Chow officially announced her run for mayor.

And another 33 were removed after Wednesday’s mayoral debate.

Copyright: Toronto Star

Copyright: Toronto Star

The other main candidates have removed far fewer, and over a longer period. Since March 3, Mayor Rob Ford, John Tory, David Soknacki, and Karen Stintz have removed 51, 16, two and zero respectively.

“Abusive comments are just sadly part of any social media campaign,” says Chow’s digital director, Jennifer Hollett. “But it’s still surprising when someone is in-your-face-racist or says something very inappropriate about Jack Layton.”

The comments removed by campaign staff, were tracked using an automated program that scans comments on a candidate’s Facebook page every hour. This routine records any new comments, but also checks to see whether any past comments are now missing.

The program will not catch all removed comments, nor can it detect whether it was the page’s administrator or the poster themselves who hid or deleted the comment.

Many derogatory comments remain on Ford’s official Facebook page. The administrator of the page has to date removed 51 comments.

But leaving derogatory comments may be a strategy for Ford.

“This is a guy who wants to show that there’s opposition to him out there,” says Tamara Small, a professor specializing in digital politics at the University of Guelph. “It’s kind of his thing, that he’s fighting against the man, and standing up to the left-wing elite.”

And Small adds that by leaving those negative comments up — comments other candidates may remove — it helps to rally his support base ahead of the Oct. 27 vote.

“If Ford did delete all the negative comments about himself, he’d almost certainly have a higher total than Olivia Chow,” she says.

Small goes on to say that using and monitoring social media is important for candidates but connecting with actual voters remains the best strategy.

“Going door to door is still really important. In the 2012 presidential election there were lots of stories talking about the (President Barack) Obama ground campaign. A ground campaign is not sexy compared to a digital campaign, but a ground campaign works. I’ve been asked before if I had to advise someone to have a digital or a ground campaign, I’d say to them ‘You cut the technology. If you want to win, cut the technology, you go and knock on doors.’”

Supriya Dwivedi, the press secretary for David Soknacki, says she’s not surprised by the type of comments Chow has received.

“Women tend to get the disproportionate brunt of offensive comments on the internet,” she says. “Throw in the fact that Olivia is a visible minority, and that of course compounds the problem.”

With more of a focus on Twitter, the Soknacki camp has not yet blocked any commenters. The campaign’s Facebook page has a fraction of the posts of the other mayoral candidates, and to date only two comments have been removed.

“The demographics that use Facebook and Twitter are vastly different,” says Dwivedi. “We’re focusing on Twitter as it tends to attract a more politicized, more engaged crowd.”

But the four-member team that manages Chow’s Facebook page shares the same basic ground rules as the Soknacki and Tory campaigns — abusive, obscene, offensive or inflammatory comments are simply unacceptable.

“However we’re not just looking for problem comments — we’re also looking for feedback about the campaign,” adds Hollett.

She says approximately 75 users have now been blocked from posting to the page.

“’Don’t be the troll’ is the mantra of anyone who spends any time on Facebook,” says Hollett. “But they’re always out there.”