Ontario politicians close the book on Facebook

(This is a post by BlogCampaigning's special correspondent and man-about-town) Facebook has arrived in Canada.

The online social networking platform has been around for some time, but it made front page headlines in Toronto this past month.

Employees of the Ontario province's majority liberal party were blocked from accessing Facebook on their workstation computers. Staffers were spending too much time on the site during working hours, according to those behind the move.

Some commentators lamented the transition on the site, from body shots in bars to body bags in Afghanistan. Others cited privacy concerns, while noting the importance of the medium in reaching the under 25 age demographic.

March 2007 was the highest usage of Facebook among Canadians ever. And the country is Facebook's fastest growing demographic. Over half a million users are found in Toronto, the provincial capital. No surprise then that City Hall soon experienced a similar ban for their staff.

Special Session on Social Media

The Legislative Library, housed at Queen's Park (where the Provincial government sits), had a session on the role of social media in political campaigns for those working within the political machine.

CBC’s Sean Mullen shared how the major uses of social media in politics have been on YouTube. And since Facebook conveniently allows sharing of videos with multiple users, it has become the perfect platform for disseminating YouTube political videos. Still, 56% of voters use television of their primary source of information. But most of these examples took place in the U.S., and not in Canada.

Dr. Tamara Small of Mt. Allison University explained how the numbers are slightly lower for internet use in politics in Canada. But Facebook might be the exception. This may have been due to a scheduled upcoming Ontario provincial election in October. Candidates of all parties were rushing to gain supporters through virtual 'friends.' Groups were formed to engage in dialogue on topical issues raised in the legislature. And the political junkies posted notes to snowball this trend, momentarily displacing the more common relationship type self-questionnaires.

Led Dieu Tran from the Legislative Assembly of Ontario commented that one of the greatest limitations of online media in politics is that it is a pull medium; participants must already be involved in the subject matter. Voters are not glued to their channel, waiting for the game to start. If they have no interest, there is a low likelihood they will be exposed at all.

And although all major political parties are represented on Facebook, including current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, and NDP leader Jack Layton, few are actively involved. Most accounts are obviously maintained by staffers. Some, such as Liberal MP candidate Michael Ignatieff’s profile, even contained biographical errors until users pointed it out.

Notable Exceptions

However, as I pointed out during the session, there are exceptions to this trend. Some Canadian politicians use Facebook for more than issuing media releases and television advertisements that have been uploaded to YouTube. Notably, MP’s Carolyn Bennett, Omar Alghabra, and Mark Holland, all use Facebook to create intimate political discussions with Canadians from the comfort of their office, or the convenience of their Blackberry when on the road.

Historical use of political social media before Facebook suggests that it plays its most important role in organizing and mobilization. And the events feature of Facebook demonstrated that it was being used quite frequently specifically for this purpose. Campaign strategies and fundraising events featured prominently among the political circles on Facebook.

One interesting example is the Canadian Federation of Students campaign against tuition hikes. The Ryerson University students created a series of video spoofs off Capital One’s “Hands in my Pockets” ads that attracted national attention. (You can see one of the Ryerons student videos here.)

And considering that many of the staffers at Queen’s Park were using Facebook specifically for this purpose during an election year, it appears puzzling that the site would be blocked for political staffers working on a campaign. It’s likely that those behind the move did not themselves have accounts, or understand its political utility. Even more interesting is that provincial opposition parties were not automatically affected, because they are on a different computer system. Stranger still, other social media sites with far more limited practical use such as MySpace are not targeted.

Fighting Back

There are ways to still access Facebook despite the controls. Some staff members, suffering from withdrawal of virtual political interaction, devised some creative solutions to tricking security firewalls:

1) Change your network and log in directly from there. Facebook is based on networks of academic, geographic, and workplace groupings, each which has its own url. For example, while the main log-in site (www.facebook.com) and Toronto (Toronto.facebook.com) networks are blocked, the University of Toronto (utoronto.facebook.com) or Hamilton City (Hamilton.facebook.com) are not.

2) Use Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer. Firefox has internal proxies that help obscure your IP address. If the Mozilla site is blocked, downloads from home can be brought in. However, Firefox by itself usually is not enough to subvert advanced firewalls.

3) Log on using an anonymizer, which goes a step further and effectively accesses Facebook from another server entirely, and not the government one that is firewalled. However, depending on the construction of the proxy there are various levels of effectiveness with this method, and some may allow read-only access or limit access to certain features. (ed. note: Hellz yeah, I love that cypherpunk shit)

Although these specific techniques have never been publicized before, knowledge of them by IT staff at Queen’s Park might not have a significant effect. There are countless networks in place, and there is nothing stopping users from changing networks to Kalamazoo, MI, or Dubai, UAE. All networks cannot easily be blocked. Similarly, anonymizers are not new to IT security staff, and many sites hosting free services are already blocked. But there are far more new ones created literally every day than can be identified regularly.

A more realistic expectation would be of responsible usage, limited to political research when warranted by job duties, rather than rating photos of potential partners.

Mullen had also emphasized the importance of the demographic divide. People under 30 are increasingly using the Internet to obtain their information and educate themselves on political issues. But this demographic is also the least likely to vote, and most in need of active participation in the political process.

Facebook is here to stay, and by limiting political involvement politicians risk further alienating the electorate by not attending the equivalent of the modern town hall.

The author of this article is a PR practitioner who operates his own independent consulting company. He also currently works by Queen’s Park behind a firewall that officially does not allow Facebook access. You can add him on Facebook by searching his name – he changes his networks so there is no stable link (please specify this blog when adding him).