As Big Tech’s Algorithms Have Evolved, Political Toxicity Has Spread

Over the last several years, the business of politics has become uglier.

May 12, 2022
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Illustration by Paul Lachine.

Scott Simms was canvassing in Little Burnt Bay, a fishing village an hour’s drive north of Gander, Newfoundland, when he decided that the federal election of 2021 would be his last.

Simms, 52, a former weatherman with an easy smile and a self-deprecating sense of humour, was doing something he had done many times since he was first elected as Liberal member of Parliament (MP) for this part of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, in 2004: driving around with his campaign team, knocking on doors and shaking hands.

He remembers a big fellow coming out of one house while he was walking up the driveway. The man began shouting at him about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Simms, who is five-feet-four, tried to calm him down. “He comes toward me, to tower over me. Now, I’ve been the shortest kid all my life. That’s not a big deal.”

But the man was upset. No problem, Simms said, he would leave, but the man kept coming, furious, getting closer. “I’m going to grab you,” he said. “And I’m going to throw you in a ditch. Do you think I’m afraid to do it?”

Simms walked back to his truck, where his campaign assistant was waiting. “He said, ‘Are you okay? Do you need time to collect yourself?’ I realized then that my heart rate barely rose. I guess I’ve become so numb at this point to hearing this stuff and looking at this stuff that I’ve just become used to it,” Simms says. “So that’s one of those times when you realize, I think my time in this business is done.”

Over the last several years, the business of politics in Canada has become uglier. In 2020, Vice News spoke to numerous lawmakers and staffers who complained about the frequency of security incidents, such as physical assaults and death threats. The vitriol seemed to surge during last year’s federal election, when representatives from all levels of government and across party lines reported threats and attacks. Some party operatives, according to CBC News, called it “the nastiest campaign they’ve ever experienced,” and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) noted an increase in need for additional security. Volunteers and candidates were assaulted; in one incident, police charged a 56-year-old woman for pinning a Liberal incumbent against a wall with a table. Trudeau, who opted to wear a bulletproof vest at a 2019 rally due to RCMP concerns for his safety, wasn’t spared: a People’s Party of Canada staffer is awaiting trial for allegedly throwing gravel at him during a London campaign rally. And, last year, a gun-toting military reservist from Manitoba was sentenced to six years in prison after he rammed his truck into the gates near the prime minister’s residence with his truck in 2020.

Not one of the politicians I spoke to for this story believes the response to date can assure everyone’s safety. Some are left wondering if politics has become too dangerous a job.

The attacks didn’t end when the election did. In February, hours after he voted to invoke the Emergencies Act to bring an end to the so-called “freedom convoy” protest in Ottawa, Peter Fonseca, the Liberal MP for Mississauga East-Cooksville, had his office damaged by a fire police called “suspicious.” That same month, Chris d’Entremont was one of two Conservative Party MPs from Nova Scotia whose local constituency offices received packages containing an unknown chemical irritant and violent images.

We see the same thing in other countries. In February, The New York Times reviewed more than 70 indictments related to threats against lawmakers since 2016. In 2021, the United Kingdom raised the threat level against lawmakers to “substantial” after parliamentarian David Amess was stabbed to death at a face-to-face in his constituency. In Canada, the crescendo of abuse toward politicians has risen to the point that the country’s top civil servant warned that someone will be shot. The House of Commons has spent millions stepping up security, logging threats, preparing security assessments, working with local police and providing MPs with panic buttons. For security reasons, the House won’t comment on the rate of threats, but the increase has been “quite alarming,” according to an official who was briefed on the situation but was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Not one of the politicians I spoke to for this story believes the response to date can assure everyone’s safety. Some are left wondering if politics has become too dangerous a job.

“The Human Brain’s Attraction to Divisiveness”

What has changed? Why does it suddenly seem to be open season on Canadian politicians? Simms, who ended up losing in the 2021 election, blames Facebook. He traces it back to a 2018 adjustment to the company’s algorithm, one that made it easier — and more profitable — to spread emotionally charged political messages. Simms noticed the difference on doorsteps. “In 2019, when I spoke of something that was a fact or refuted something that they said, they doubted me. In 2021, if they said something and I refuted it, I was an outright liar. There was no doubt involved. It was a certainty.”

The social network — popular among Canadians, with about 78 percent being regular users — has been under fire from critics who say it has deepened polarization. Some of those critics are former Facebook executives. Last fall, US whistle-blower Frances Haugen released documents and gave testimony showing that, in 2018, Facebook changed its algorithm to prioritize content that led to “meaningful interactions” — a metric that measured likes, shares and comments. Content was thus prized for its ability to engage users, not for its accuracy. “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” Facebook’s researchers warned the company that year. “If left unchecked,” they said, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” According to the Wall Street Journal, executives opted to largely shelf the findings.

Heidi Tworek is a University of British Columbia associate professor who studies social media disinformation. She makes it clear that Facebook isn’t trying to foster extremism. (Indeed, the platform is quick to point out its efforts to shut down disinformation and radicalism.) The real problem, Tworek says, is that extremism turns out to be an excellent way to keep users clicking. She was one of the co-authors of a report, released in 2020, that looked at the social media abuse politicians faced during the 2019 federal election. That election, according to the report, marked a new high in social media usage in Canada. Tworek’s team analyzed over one million tweets directed at candidates and found that 40 percent of the messages showed evidence of hostility, ranging from incivility — which, for researchers, included dismissive insults and racial slurs — to harassment. It’s precisely the kind of conduct, says Tworek, that social media feeds on. “Algorithms are designed to keep you engaged, and the emotions that keep you engaged are generally negative,” says Tworek, who is a senior fellow at CIGI. “This is a dynamic inherent to the profit incentives of social media companies.”

Tworek’s team analyzed over one million tweets directed at candidates and found that 40 percent of the messages showed evidence of hostility….precisely the kind of conduct, says Tworek, that social media feeds on.

For Fenwick McKelvey, an associate professor in communications studies at Concordia University, social media isn’t the cause but a conduit: platforms are simply channelling the mainstreaming of polarizing rhetoric. “The idea that certain shifts in the newsfeed might have had an impact on politics is believable, but I would want to emphasize that this is also during a very tumultuous time,” says McKelvey, who is also a member of the Walrus’s educational review committee. “This is post-election of Donald Trump. This is the rise of a real insurgent reactionary right. This is going through decades of democratic decline and slippage, so as much as we want to say, ‘The algorithms caused it,’ the best I think we can get to is ‘Algorithms contribute to it.’”

Whatever it is that algorithms are contributing to, politicians are clearly bearing the brunt of it. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner has long been a magnet for conspiracists and misogynist attacks, perhaps because she has been vocal about her support for LGBTQ2+ causes. In 2016, a Toronto man was convicted of threatening her with sexual violence over Twitter.

But the volume of abuse is getting worse. During the 2021 federal election campaign, on the evening of August 27, Rempel Garner was out for dinner with her husband at a Calgary restaurant when a man approached her table. Filming her with his phone, he asked about her connections with Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Switzerland-based think tank. A growing number of people allege that the WEF has a secret plan to enslave the world using vaccines. These conspiracists look for links between politicians and public figures — like Rempel Garner — who have attended WEF events and been photographed with Schwab. In the video, Rempel Garner’s husband, a former soldier, tries to stand up, ready to put himself between the stranger and his wife. The man filming steps back. “Are you going to hit me?” he asks.

The day after her dinner was interrupted, Rempel Garner put out a statement about what her life is like. “In the last two weeks alone, I have had two men spot me on the street, jump out of a car with cameras, and chase after me down the street demanding I respond to conspiracy theories,” she wrote. “For these individuals in these moments, I feel like they don’t see me as a human. In those moments, I also fear. This is on top of the barrage of online hate and defamation that is directed at me on a daily basis.”

Like Simms, Rempel Garner believes the increasingly extreme and divisive social media diets of a growing number of Canadians are behind the increased threats to her safety.

Rempel Garner doesn’t advertise the location of her campaign office or release schedules of public appearances. She has been told that the conspiracists use Telegram, an encrypted instant messaging service, to share information about her movements. “I'm on edge and feel fear when I’m getting in and out of my car, and out in public in general.”

Like Simms, Rempel Garner believes that the increasingly extreme and divisive social media diets of a growing number of Canadians are behind the increased threats to her safety. Many voters are in echo chambers, getting their news from algorithms that feed them content that fits their world views. They take their cues from the like-minded.

“I’d had the Facebook algorithm explained to me as a murmuration of birds,” says Rempel Garner. “One bird sees the path of the seven around them. Their flight path is influenced by those closest to them and on and on.” Like a flock of starlings in flight, humans look to those around them for cues on which way to move.

“There’s a responsibility for each of us to understand that that is happening to us,” she adds. “We’re being manipulated to digest content that entrenches our beliefs and closes us off from other types of news. And we’re informing the flight paths of others.”

“A Whole Different Realm Now”

In March, I called Charlie Angus, the New Democratic Party (NDP) member for Timmins-James Bay, to ask about how social media is making politics more dangerous. He happened to be fresh from a hearing, where he was seeking a peace bond against a man in his riding who was repeatedly harassing and threatening him. Angus is reluctant to discuss the details of the matter, but it rattled him. “Everyone’s feeling it,” he says about the increasing toxicity of political life. “Traumatized is an overused word, but some of what’s been going on is really shaking a lot of people up.”

When the convoy protest rolled into Ottawa at the end of January, and downtown residents were kept up by the honking of truck horns and fearful of being harassed on the street, Angus used his social media accounts to call out the occupiers and the police and politicians who had let them establish their encampments. On February 17, in a House of Commons debate on the Emergencies Act invocation that brought an end to the occupation, Angus denounced convoy organizer Pat King, who had talked about Trudeau “catching a bullet” on one of his live streams. “I will not negotiate with anyone who talks about shooting a prime minister in this country.”

King responded by angrily denouncing Angus in a live stream on Facebook, where he has 349,000 followers. King raised his prosthetic leg to the camera and asked Angus if he was afraid of somebody with a disability. He also called NDP leader Jagmeet Singh a terrorist and accused the party of funding Antifa. Angus became a target for angry convoy supporters, and death threats started to roll in. He quote one in particular, which stuck in his mind: “‘How do you feel like being John Lennon? Just walk down the street and see what happens.’”

But what showed Angus how profoundly social media was shaping behaviour was seeing constituents in his riding accusing him of maligning peaceful protesters. “I was saying, ‘I’m down there. And I’m seeing a lot of threats, man. That’s why I’m speaking up.’ And they’d say, ‘No. You’re lying. That’s not true. You didn’t see that.’ And that’s when I realized why we’re in a whole different realm now because we can’t even agree on what facts and reality are.”

In February, when a plane with United Nations markings was spotted at the North Bay airport, where it was being repaired, conspiracists rushed to social media claiming it was evidence that UN troops were being flown in to attack the convoy protesters. “It’s normally the stuff I would make jokes about,” says Angus. “But now I’ve got people who used to write to me with questions about highway safety wondering why I didn’t speak up about the UN flying into North Bay to send in their storm troopers.”

“A Threat to Our Democracy”

With so many conspiracy theorists convinced there is a secret plot to bring Canada under Islamic law, it’s no surprise that Muslim politicians are frequent targets. Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi was regularly harassed during his 11 years in office. In 2016 alone, he received 65 threats serious enough to involve police.

Iqra Khalid, the Liberal MP for Mississauga-Erin Mills, experienced something similar in 2017, after she tabled a motion calling on the House to condemn Islamophobia and systemic racism. A network of anti-Muslim online campaigners saw the motion as a scheme to make Canada, as one of them wrote on a conspiracy website, a “defacto Sharia compliant state.” Khalid’s social media profiles were soon ridden with tens of thousands of graphically violent messages. (“Kill her and be done with it,” read one. “We will burn down your mosques draper head Muslim,” read another). She had to get police protection for her family and constituency office. The threats eventually stopped, but their savagery has stuck with her.

Khalid agrees that social media has helped divide Canadians. “It creates echo chambers, where you hear only things that you’re interested in or you hear only things that agree with your viewpoint.” In her 2020 report, Tworek suggested some ways lawmakers could address those echo chambers, such as strengthening laws against online threats and compelling social media companies to practise more effective content moderation. But, unlike in Europe, where legislators are bringing in more-stringent rules and proposing a new regulatory model, the Canadian government has been slower to act. Angus wants MPs to put additional scrutiny on algorithms, using Parliament’s power to pierce the secrecy of the proprietary formulae that control our newsfeeds. “We’re trying to find avenues to keep this pressure on because it will destroy democracy in this country if we can’t even agree on a shared set of facts.”

Catherine McKenna, a former Ottawa Centre Liberal MP, believes that social media companies don’t do enough to control hate and threats. She became a magnet for waves of online attacks when she spearheaded the government’s carbon pricing strategy as Trudeau’s environment minister. In 2019, a sexist slur was spray-painted on her Ottawa constituency office, and she worried for her family. She says she was offered support and assistance with security, but not everybody involved seemed to fully understand the problem. “At one point, I was literally told, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be online,’” she said in an interview. “I couldn’t even believe it. I was, like, ‘This is my job. I have to land policies. I have to reach out to Canadians.’”

People speculate that McKenna left politics before last year’s federal election because the attacks became unendurable, but she says that’s not true — that she “got out of politics 100 percent” to spend more time with her kids and focus on climate change. (She was recently named head of a United Nations panel that will grade corporate pledges to reduce emissions.) But she worries that threats and harassment are keeping good people from running for office. “This isn’t abstract,” she says. “They don’t want to go through what they see me going through. So this needs to be seen as a threat to our democracy. Because, if we don’t have people willing to run because they’re concerned about security, then it is a real problem.”

McKenna suggests that her colleagues haven’t helped things. She blames Conservatives for attacks that veered into the personal and for their silence on sexist attacks from right-wing media, which dubbed her “climate Barbie.” Conservative MP Gerry Ritz apologized after he tweeted the phrase at her. “There is a link, in my case, between climate and misogyny,” says McKenna. “They are actively trying to define you as a woman as weak and to sexualize you, your hair, or what you look like.”

Tworek, who interviewed 31 candidates and their staff for her report, agrees that online abuse is discouraging people from standing for office. “It does have real potential consequences for those who want to enter into politics and be that visible,” she says, “because they see this tremendous amount of violent threats levelled at people.” Khalid says she didn’t think about quitting, in part because she believes she has become a role model for girls. “I want to be able to leave that trail for other young girls to follow.”

Given how often politicians endure social media harassment, it is perhaps surprising they haven’t done more to curb it. Alison Loat interviewed 80 former MPs for Tragedy in the Commons, a 2014 book she co-authored with Michael MacMillan on the dysfunctions of Canadian democracy. She noticed that MPs tend to present themselves as passive and avoid recognizing their own role in a system that rewards partisan sparring. In their exit interviews, many lamented the bare-knuckle practice of party politics — as if the party, and not they, were responsible. Loat, who is a member of CIGI’s Board of Directors, thinks there is a similar passivity in MPs’ hesitancy to tackle social media while professing horror at what the platforms generate. “I think that they’ve been pretty reluctant to legislate these companies,” she says, in part “because they’re using them for their own vote-acquisition strategies.”

Rempel Garner concedes that change might need to start with her colleagues. “You can’t talk about this issue without talking about how Facebook, Twitter, or whatever algorithm incentivizes politicians to say and do things that drive those views to get their message across.” While she believes too much focus on politicians can lead to victim blaming, she says that, “at the same time, we need to be more careful about the content we put out.”

This article is co-published with The Walrus.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Stephen Maher is a Harvard Nieman Fellow and a contributing editor at Maclean’s.