By COLLIN GALLANT on January 13, 2021.
A global debate on the role of social media in politics and free speech arrived in southeast Alberta this week, and needs to be taken seriously, according to a local political science instructor.
United Conservative MLA Drew Barnes announced Sunday via his Twitter account that he could be followed on an alternate service, Parler.
Barnes’ tweet came on the same day that the outlet, promoted as a venue for supporters of Donald Trump to discuss and protest the embattled U.S. president’s defeat, was subsequently shut down.
Barnes’ original tweet sparked nearly 700 reaction comments, mostly negative, but nearly as many retweets and “likes.”
Barnes replied in email to a News request for comment that he joined Parler in June and considered it “another outlet to share my ideas that Alberta should be the freest, most prosperous place.”
Another local politician who used the service, city Coun. Jim Turner, did not respond.
Medicine Hat College professor Jim Groom said the shortfalls of social media to create division and hamper political discourse are now obvious.
Social media, and Parler in particular, is believed to have been a rallying ground for organizers to plan the storming of the U.S. Capitol in protest of the 2020 election.
However, he said, politicians operate to stay in touch with constituents, but are also subject to how constituents view their actions.
“If that (Parler) is their main means of communication though, then you’d have to assess that,” he said.
While people who use social media aren’t necessarily biased themselves, he said, extremist groups have learned how to stoke anger or spread misinformation.
And it has become more blatant through the Trump presidency, he stated.
Last week’s riots in Washington left four protesters dead, and a police officer dead after being beaten with a fire extinguisher. Major social media networks barred Trump from posting direct messages. The alternate posting service Parler – created promising not to edit or discourage any content – was then taken off distribution lists of Google and Apple, hampering new members from joining. Amazon then shut down its internet hosting service, leading to a lawsuit by Parler.
Parler’s commitment to not censoring any content has made it well known as an outlet for far-right extremists, antisemitism and conspiracy theories.
Detractors argued the network would allow unchecked hate speech to continue as well as potential planning for further criminal actions.
Groom said that free speech laws in the United States and Canada differ; the American view is more absolute, while Canadians tend to see the communal good of limiting hate speech and other rights for the common good.
However, he said, reasonable, measured conversation is needed on the issue.
“One of the fears is always that if there’s a crackdown it will cast too wide a net and people who have valid points and arguments will be caught up,” he said.
In Ottawa, there has been indication that government officials would consider labelling the “Proud Boys” a criminal hate group after it appeared to be a key part of action at the U.S. Capitol. Its Canadian chapters were hosted on Parler.
In another announcement Monday, former Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith announced she was quitting her Calgary-based radio talk show next month and would work to create a “free speech” community.
The critic of “politically correct” culture was also quitting Twitter.
Conservative social media celebrity Brett Wilson and other commentators argued in favour of participating on Parler and said de-listing was double standard censorship, against Trump, but not his critics.