metacanada and bad actors

A blog post by Bashir Mohamed is being shared on social media that points the finger at me and my affiliation with a subreddit known as “metacanada”. I’d like to address some of the points he raises and point out some of his complete fabrications.

First, let me say a few words about who I am, and though I have been accused of being a braggadocious blowhard in the past, I only mean to provide context here.

I have been a prominent figure online in the conservative movement in Canada for 15 years. I used to write a popular blog on Canadian politics (here) which was often cited by newspaper publications in Canada. This also provided an excuse for cable TV networks to direct political questions at my ugly mug for whoever happened to be walking by a TV at the airport or stuck in the nursing home lounge to question who I was – and did they miss their departure?

In 2007, Preston Manning identified my efforts early-on to connect conservatives online and made me a fellow at the Manning Centre. At the time, I sought to build communities of conservatives, whether through blogging in the earlier days, or by twitter later on. I used to explain self-deprecatingly that I was blogging “before it was cool”. But at the time, what I was doing was certainly social media before it was named that. This led to a position with the National Citizens Coalition where I was responsible for much of the same, to connect conservatives and to continue my original effort of fostering a community of conservatives online. I’ll wrap up this trip along memory lane soon enough, but I’ll just say that the advent of Sun News was a particularly exciting development for centre-right conservatives like me and I often participated on Sun providing commentary for the next generation of inhabitants at the Sunny Plains Centre for Assisted Living.

So, what’s a reddit, or a subreddit for that matter? Reddit is a popular forum hosted on the 19th most visited website in the world, according to Amazon’s Alexa rankings. Reddit allows groups of people to organize communities according to common interests. The “national” subreddit hosted at /r/canada was what you might expect – pictures of maple syrup and purple and red money, and the occasional griping about our telecom cartel. However, during the years in which Stephen Harper was Prime Minister, the subreddit took on a very angry and frenzied tone, often calling the man who some presumed had a hidden agenda everything from a dictator to a traitor. I discovered the subreddit /r/metacanada through a friend. It seemed that the entire purpose of the subreddit was to mock the angry cesspool that purported to represent itself under the national label on this very popular website. In short, the subreddit provided shitposts and memes about those that opposed Stephen Harper’s government – who, one assumes, was on the verge of unleashing phalanxes of soldiers in our streets.

Here was an irreverent community of mostly harmless folks who counted fans of Stephen Harper among them but also rational Liberals and New Democrats who were skeptical of the tone and rhetoric developing online in that other Reddit community. I read the forum for a while without participating and the context above is now important – I was a publicly visible conservative whose day job was to connect conservatives online. One day a subreddit poster noticed that I tweeted a Reddit in-joke (probably about “neckbeards”) and presumed I was lurking. They requested an AMA (an “ask me anything” townhall thread) so I posted one very much in the humourous tone and spirit of the subreddit of the time.

 I also posted an AMA on the more serious /r/CanadaPolitics subreddit (at their request) and I’ll refer you to my answers on immigration and refugees there.

“As for my own thoughts on the issue: there is a legal process for immigrating to Canada and line-jumping affects those making a lawful effort to come live in Canada. Of course, if you are a refugee and need asylum, you should be granted it. I think we should encourage immigration to Canada for anyone who wants to work hard and make a positive contribution to our society. I am pro-immigration because I think it has the effect of diversifying our economic base and global outlook.”

I continued to post every once and a while (posting information about job opportunities at Sun News, for example). Otherwise, the place was a light hearted piss-take on the wild-eyed fever swamp that was /r/canada. But, as you may know, once you get older in life you get busier. So, I didn’t post on metacanada with much frequency anymore.

And then Donald Trump ran for office.

Donald Trump changed a lot of the traditional right/left spectrum. And his online supporters include(d) traditional Republicans, Reagan Democrats, and a few outright racists. The online irreverent culture sought to “Meme Donald Trump into the Oval Office”. We now know that some of the bad actors of that era took this emerging ephemeral content to repurpose it to push their own terrible narratives. Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj both tweeted images of “Pepe the frog” before Hillary Clinton labeled such things “alt-right”. Indeed, prior to this, a number of excitable conservatives called themselves “alt-right” because they believed in Trump’s disruption of the Republican establishment. Of course, the media and political consensus eventually firmed up the definition to mean something completely terrible instead.

During the Trump run, if I recall, I posted a few times on metacanada but was losing interest because I wasn’t as excited about Donald Trump as the folks there, and the subreddit was talking about elements of American politics that I reject that Trump brought to the fore, such as the hard-edged discussion on immigration.

According to my subsequent research, posters on metacanada have tried to make it into the junior version of the Donald Trump subreddit. The conversation on metacanada has been anti-immigration and the forum is littered with conspiracy theories. I’m sure that most of the original posters there have left by now, and I hope that any who remain are trying to redirect the conversation there to a more hopeful and mainstream tone.

Last year I received a call from VICE Media on a story they were working on, looking to associate members of Andrew Scheer’s leadership team with, well, with evil. What about my postings on this anti-immigration subreddit? Well, as I’ve explained above, I don’t post there anymore. I haven’t even really posted there since before Trump fans were developing their own fever swamps on Reddit in the short time following his election. The author wrote up a piece including my denials, but this allowed the dominant leftwing SuperPAC Leadnow to create communications products that suggested I was “linked to an alt-right subreddit” in their attacks against Andrew Scheer.

That was that, I thought. But then the VICE author was writing a follow-up on the emerging “alt-right” nature of the /r/canada subreddit now that Justin Trudeau was Prime Minister. Angry politics online seems to be the primary domain of the opposition to the established power. Perhaps there is a meta-metacanada developing to mock this anger as well. The VICE author’s central premise of his new piece was that our national subreddit was being taken over and its culture was changing in ugly way. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer me the same benefit of the doubt in explaining what had happened to metacanada. Indeed, taking a cursory glance of metacanada today and you’ll see that most posters there are fans of Maxime Bernier and are pushing the subreddit to exist as a superfan group of the anti-immigration positions of the People’s Party leader. Surely, I’m not “linked” with a Maxime Bernier subreddit? Surely no more than the author of the piece is linked with the sexual predators and drug mules of VICE let alone its founder who has been labeled alt-right. For the record, I’ve never cashed a cheque from VICE Media (and therefore have not inherited all of the baggage that such an association gives — sarcasm mine)

Since my first days online, I’ve always posted my thoughts under my own name. I believe that this keeps me publicly accountable for what I say and it holds up a mirror that forces me to reflect upon myself and my intent before I publish what I publish. As we’ve seen from Twitter, it’s easy to dehumanize someone anonymously, when you aren’t forced to reflect upon your own humanity.

And I’ve been struggling to determine how to respond to these attacks and insinuations against my character. Do I sue and risk that the parties dig in and become emboldened? Do I respond directly to an author not acting in good faith, elevate his stated accusations, and risk that he’ll only take my words, move the goalposts, and continue to make new insinuations? Or do I ignore it, and hope that whatever reputation I’ve earned can weather another attack simply because I chose to help an old friend run for high office?

So here we go into the breach. I will address what I believe hasn’t been addressed above.

First, obviously it must be said: I denounce any poster who posts racist or bigoted comments on metacanada or anywhere else. Even in the absence of the pecking of anonymous keyboard warriors, it’s hard enough for marginalized communities to feel that they have access to what is not only their right in our system – the franchise of voting – but to the governments that are supposed to serve them as it does all Canadians. We need every Canadian to feel as though they can access our democracy and we should strive to create an environment where a person of any cultural or racial background possesses the confidence to run for office.

To my knowledge, I have not met any moderator of metacanada. I do not know any of the moderators of metacanada. When I did my AMA with metacanada (in 2013), I was warned against doxxing individuals because presumably there may have been posters that I may have recognized posting from the conservative movement submitting comments on the AMA during this more innocent time. And, I didn’t know then, but we all know now – doxxing is an internet foul.

I was not called or contacted for comment on this piece by Bashir Mohamed. In my own experience, this suggests the author may have been motivated by outcomes rather than the process (or even the truth). I don’t know Bashir Mohamed but I would welcome a friendly meet for a coffee. I believe that in this time of divisive social media, in-person dialogue can help us understand each other, our motivations, and what is no doubt our common ground as Canadians. I do believe that Mohamed is motivated by a goal that we both share: to excise the hatred, anger, and the tone from our politics that creates polarization and division. But I do believe that Mohamed is being imprecise and reckless in his approach.

Metacanada used to link my twitter from their sidebar. Again, I was a prominent online figure of the Canadian conservative movement at the time and this was likely linked because I did the AMA there in 2013. As the nature of the subreddit has radically changed, they may have linked Maxime Bernier’s twitter there now.

A word about alt accounts on Reddit. As I’ve written above, I’ve written every thought online under my own name since my first day online. In the lighter days of metacanada when I posted there, there was an in-joke that the number of angry Harper-hating critics who brigaded the subreddit was just one person with the username “harvo” (?) and his thousands of alt accounts. So any joking of alt accounts and downvoting (brigading of metacanada) content is on that theme. As for the tag “Shilly Joel”, this was an in-joke surrounding the characterization of metacanada posters for being paid “shills” for Harper. Someone made a Shilly Joel joke at some time, and I repeated it to reference the in-joke.

This is an election year. I’m obviously a partisan target, as are associates of mine with whom I’ve shared decades of friendship. Partisan politics is a game with high elbows. But, I should say I’ve been particularly disheartened by this line of attack against Canadian Conservatives. In Canada, our political rhetoric is often 2-5 years behind the Americans and our total consumption of US cable news has shown that our partisans they can get more mileage awkwardly applying American political dialogue to the Canadian frame. Since 85% of Canadians would support the Democrats were they American, Liberals in this country have tried to apply GOP labels to Canadian Conservatives from “Republican” to “religious right” to “tea party”. I suppose imitating American politics is more exciting than talking about who is going to dole out an extra 5% for government-funded childcare or who offers the best boutique tax credit for whichever accessible voter block. The current iteration seeks to dehumanize us by association with evil: “alt-right” and “nazi”. Our dialogue is moving towards associating the motivations of terrorist attacks – whether by radical islamists or racists – with others such as the broader Muslim community or mainstream conservatives. This moves us away from dialogue and drastically shrinks the Overton window for everyday Canadians. More dialogue fosters a broader understanding of each other and I maintain that much more that unites us to talk about than what divides us. And as for what divides, let’s talk about these things with good faith and with a goal of reconciliation.

I will close by talking about two experiences that have profoundly shaped my political experience. I have never publicly talked about one and I have rarely brought up the other. Both because I rarely need to cite proof of my humanity, and one because of safety concerns prior to a fundamental change in government.

In the earlier part of this decade, I traveled twice to Zimbabwe twice on behalf of USAID to participate in democracy development and training with the opposition party of Morgan Tsvangirai. We provided instruction on the things we take for granted as political operatives in Canada: voter ID, event planning, digital campaigning etc. When we were doing remote training with young partisans who opposed the government of Robert Mugabe, I ran a seminar on voter ID and explained how we do it in Canada. “First, you knock on someone’s door and this leads to a conversation where you ask them how they intend to vote.” Before I could finish my sentence, a young girl, no older than 16 put her hand up and explained to me that if we were to do such a thing on the streets of Bulawayo or Mutare or even Harare, the resident would think that we would return at midnight and burn their house down. I felt pretty damned ignorant in the moment, and my heart broke. Zimbabwe has gone through some huge changes lately and I’m hopeful that its people are richly rewarded for their persistence in seeking dialogue as they build their own democracy. The society is recovering from a political atmosphere rife with rumour, whispered words speaking the truth via opposite phrasing, and the grinding threat of tragic violence that could occur at any moment.

A few years later, I participated in a funding process to get a democracy development project underway in Indonesia. This southeast asian country is the world’s most populous muslim nation and interestingly enough, despite its challenge of connecting people across its more than 17000 islands, it has among the highest mobile phone use in the world. A challenge facing this democracy is that women don’t often feel empowered to speak up at village council meetings or they are indeed forbidden to attend by their male partners or elders. I conceptualized and wrote software to create a distributed SMS platform that would allow development agencies to poll and reflect polling data back on the points of view of women in these remote villages. This to empower women to be heard. Our project won investment from global development agencies and it has been implemented on the ground.

I bring up both of these examples because it is not only important to work toward trading in bullets for ballots, but also to give up on what puts up walls between us and do more to increase dialogue to foster mutual understanding. When we start dehumanizing others, we get on a slippery slope that leads to disaster.

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“The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.”
– Lt. Col Alfred Dreyfus

Requiem for the regulators

Last week the CRTC, the government body that regulates radio, television and telecommunications in this country, got its hooks into Plenty of Fish, the Vancouver-based dating website, reeling in $48,000 in fines from the company under Canada’s new anti-spam legislation.

The law’s intent is supposedly the protection of consumers from unsolicited commercial messages. As is the function of a dating website, members of Plenty of Fish were receiving regular messages from fellow members. The problem, according to Canada’s regulator of digital candygrams? No prominent unsubscribe button. Surely, the Canadian government has rolled back the tides of injustice.

Canada is not alone in its apparent hostility to new technology. This week, the Guardian reported that Amazon, frustrated by an overly burdensome regulatory regime in the United States, has taken its delivery drone testing to British Columbia. Amazon is testing its flights in airspace that provides clearance from most buildings but keeps their birds well below the altitude of commercial aviation.

In Canada, and countries like it, innovative technology is outpacing regulation and leaving previously comfortable incumbents scrambling to address competitors. Uber has flipped the taxi industry on its roof. The service provides a better safety record, user experience and availability than the oft-unpleasant result that comes from a protected provider with little incentive to lower costs and improve service. Now that there is a threat, traditional taxi companies don’t look to compete in the marketplace but to regulate, legislate and ban.

If Canada were to build a national railway today, we’d be less worried about the last spike than driving the first. Red tape, redundant environmental assessments, treaty reinterpretations and any number of other statutory and litigious layers would threaten any ribbon of steel, line of pipe, or other channel of commerce proposed by industrious people looking to connect us to each other. Our national forebears carved a country out of the wilderness. Now, the government protects us from American content on Netflix.

The original promise of the Internet was freedom. It was to be a global network of connected people, communicating freely and trading openly. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Internet’s breakthrough as a popular phenomenon, we need to take notice of our drift toward what is perhaps the natural tendency of comfortable people to structure, define, and restrict — especially as it comes at the expense of our ability to create and compete in a world outside our borders that is experiencing its own period of rapid expansion.

There are now more people in the world who own a mobile device than own a toothbrush. According to the United Nations International Telecommunication Union, the number of individuals in developed nations with access to the Internet grew by 59% (366 million) in the past decade, while in developing nations that figure rose by 375% (1.53 billion). For many of these people, their first Internet experience has been on mobile and for many, email is not used as their primary identifier online, if at all.

Such companies as Twitter and Facebook have recognized this. Twitter has created an easily integrated module for any mobile application developer to verify new users while Facebook has invested $19 billion in Whatsapp, a messaging app. Verification for Twitter-enabled apps and Whatsapp are based off of an ID less disposable, more trustworthy and now even more ubiquitous than email: the mobile phone number. There’s no surprise that Whatsapp’s explosive growth happened mostly outside of North American and European borders.

For the developing world, Google is looking up — way up. It is looking far above Europe’s cookie regulatory regime that mandates users be warned about 1995 technology every time they visit a EU-based website, far above Canadian law mandating which TV channels are bundled and unbundled from television packages, and far above grounded U.S.-based Amazon drones.

Last year, Google quietly launched its Loon project. Through a series of networked weather balloons that autonomously adjust their altitude to catch global wind currents in the stratosphere, the Loon project aims to maintain a network of wireless Internet service for mobile devices. Where the development of communications infrastructure has been made impossible by corruption — traditional or regulatory — Google is aiming to build new channels of communication and commerce.

With smartphone prices plummeting in the developing world, the tools to transact in this marketplace are more and more widespread among the world’s population. Globalization and the liberalization of trade have already brought more people out of poverty than any other forces in human history. Now ubiquitous access to the next generation’s tools of commerce will bring even greater affluence and opportunity to these fast-growing parts of the world.

In Canada, and in much of the developed world, our regulatory culture risks overfishing. Will it be too late when we find that the fish have found warmer currents outside our still waters?

This article originally appeared in the April 2nd, 2015 edition of the National Post, published by Postmedia Network.

Let Ottawans use Uber if they wish

To conjure up the metaphor of the buggy-whip maker is to make a point about how the introduction of new technology to an industry has made old products obsolete. It has been used so often since the advent of the Internet and even more so with the ubiquity of today’s apps and smartphones, that it is now cliché.

But if I may, the story of the buggy-whip maker is perhaps no more apt than when discussing the introduction of Uber to the marketplace.

When was the last time you took a cab in Ottawa and thought, “well now, that was a pleasant experience”? From the late or forgotten pickups, to the way your driver looks at you sideways if you offer to pay with your credit card – as if it were the first time someone had ever tried something so preposterous – the Ottawa cab industry is due for a shakeup.

Ottawa residents may be surprised to discover that their city doesn’t have a competitive taxi marketplace. A monopoly exists in dispatch and most of the cab companies are owned by Coventry Connections. Were you offended by BlueLine’s service and opted for DJ’s instead? Sorry, they’re owned by the same parent company. Capital, West-way, and Airport taxi? Peel away your impression of competition, and instead you’ll find a cab cabal.

Of course, the City of Ottawa has an interest in protecting its revenue stream via its licensing system. The Uber model disrupts and easily supplants this antiquated and closed system. Yet, Mayor Jim Watson says the City of Ottawa will throw the book at Uber if it operates as an unlicensed taxi service in Ottawa.

Like all products and services that people want, Uber has been able to grow organically. As a result, the startup is now in over 45 countries and 200 cities worldwide. The “secret” to Uber’s success – and that of almost any technology company – has been to innovate in part of the marketplace that is poorly or inefficiently served. Just ask a travel agent – if you can find one nowadays – how the booking industry changed since grandma learned how to book her cruise with a “point and click.”

Today, Shopify is the darling of the Ottawa business community. It revolutionized e-commerce and helps small businesses reach new customers with easy-to-implement web storefronts.

Of course, companies who dismiss it all as a fad find themselves out of business quickly.

Imagine if traditional brick-and-mortar shops had turned away from adopting better ways to serve customers, to instead stop Shopify by regulating the company out of existence. “If only there were a law to shut down the Internet,” they might say.

For the rest of us who aren’t trying to alter reality, shouldn’t we be free to transact how we wish with companies that provide a superior service?

Uber is a boon for this town of government and professionals. Payment information is preloaded in the Uber app, so no need to pull out cash or credit. A receipt is automatically emailed for easy expense filing. For those concerned about transparency and accountability, receipts provide not only the cost of the trip, but a map from origin to destination.

Virtually everyone that tries Uber is both surprised about the positive difference it provides compared to traditional cabs, and also that such a service had not already been invented. Let the people of Ottawa be free to choose their ride. Indeed, Jim Watson can continue to trudge along in his BlueLine buggy, but for the sake of the rest of us, it’s time to retire the whip.

This article originally appeared in the October 9th, 2014 edition of the Ottawa Citizen, published by Postmedia Network.