Toronto voters, already hit by a storm of change, are starting to be pelted by messages about “villain” councillors and mayoral candidate statements deemed “silly,” “fringe” and even “separatist.”
To some, regulating the advertisers — that is, individuals and groups, who are independent of candidates, and blasting out election ads — is bringing transparency to what was a “wild west.”
“There were no rules at all, and, most importantly, no transparency,” in who was behind Facebook posts, text messages and other communications recommending or reviling municipal candidates in past elections, says Ted McMeekin, a former Liberal MPP defeated in the June provincial election.
To others, including veteran Toronto city councillor Gord Perks, the province is sanctioning social-media smear campaigns.
Voters “don’t have time to figure out who (third-party advertisers) are and what agenda they serve,” said Perks, running for re-election in Parkdale-High Park in the 25-ward system imposed mid-election by the Progressive Conservative government.
The advertisers, he says, “become these anonymous Twitter-Facebook voices often spreading highly inaccurate information about the election people are participating in.
“I’m disappointed that the province imposed this on us.”
By Thursday five third-party advertisers were registered in Toronto including Ontario Proud, a group of conservative activists who flooded Facebook, Twitter and smartphone screens with anti-NDP and anti-Liberal messages during the Ontario election; and Progress Toronto, left-leaning activists trying to convince Torontonians to elect progressive city councillors and school trustees.
As well as registering, they must identify themselves, and, in so doing, include an individual’s name; refrain from being directed by any candidate; and from issues-based advertising; spend no more than $25,000 during the election and $2,500 after it; and accept donations of no more than $1,200 per individual.
Unions and corporations can donate to third-party advertisers, but not to candidates.
Ontario Proud, which has a big Facebook presence, is pumping out ads slamming progressive mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat, and will soon target “career councillors who voted for continual tax increases” and are seeking re-election, says founder Jeff Ballingall.
“We’re going to talk about the dangers of turning back to NDP-style government where we had garbage piling up (during the 2009 civic workers strike) in Christie Pits,” says Ballingall, who in the past worked at city hall as a councillor’s aide, and later at Sun News Network.
Critics call Ontario Proud ads extreme and sometimes misleading. One brands Keesmaat a “radical separatist” based on tweets musing about possible Toronto seccession posted just before she registered to run against Mayor John Tory, but that are not part of her mayoral platform.
Ballingall rejects the accusation.
“We were more engaged on social media than all the parties and all the politicians combined,” in the Ontario election, he claimed.
Third-party advertisers on the left of the political spectrum are throwing punches, too.
Progress Toronto is asking people to nominate councillors as “progressive champions” and others as council’s “worst villains.”
Michal Hay, a group co-founder, says villains are councillors who serve themselves and Tory’s conservative administration, not the best interests of their ward residents.
“We’ll be looking to unseat villains on council and we will be looking to get new progressive champions at the Toronto District School Board as well as at Toronto city council,” she says.
Progress Toronto was anticipating a progressive breakthrough when the election had 47 wards. The 25-seat race makes that breakthrough tougher, Hay says, but “I believe that we can get a progressive city council.”
“We have hundreds of volunteers across the city and we’ve been building that capacity to work against (Premier Doug) Ford and Ford’s (council-shrinking) bill; and now we’re going to turn that on its head and get people out knocking on doors, delivering flyers,” to elect politicians, she says.
“We will be online pushing out social ads and texting people, as well, but our strength is actually in face-to-face conversations, (in) people talking to voters.”