In defense of tweeting politicians

11 Feb

A couple of quick housekeeping notes before we get to today’s topic. If you’re still reading this blog on, just a note that I’m planning on rejigging that site this weekend. I’ve been running the same stuff on two blogs, the other being, since I started the second one in the fall and it’s a bit of a pain in the butt. So, starting this weekend (hopefully) will still have a feed of my every-day blog posts, but it will be reworked to serve primarily as a home for book-related stuff. If you’re a regular reader, please update your bookmarks to point to, which will be my main blog from here on in.

The other order of business is a reminder about PowerPoint Karaoke tonight at the Gladstone here in Toronto. The shindig officially starts at 7 but I’m told the actual presentations will start around 8. Fingers crossed that I’m on later rather than sooner. You can get tickets to this event, which closes out Social Media Week, by going here.

Speaking of social media…

Earlier this week, I was a guest on CBC Radio’s Q program along with ex-CRTC commissioner Richard French. The topic of discussion, as it has been among tech-heads for the past few weeks, was the big usage-based-billing fiasco. You can have a listen by heading to Q’s archives – the segment is right at the top of the show.

I thought it was a pretty intelligent and wide-ranging discussion that covered a lot of ground. Richard and I disagreed on several points, but we also found some common ground. Obviously, with his being a former CRTC commissioner, he has been quite sympathetic to the regulator during this whole issue. While I think the CRTC has really got the whole thing wrong and that it’s probably about time to review how it operates, I certainly don’t have anywhere near the same vitriol for it that many Canadians do.

What rubbed me wrong, though, was when Richard talked about online activism in general and Industry Minister Tony Clement’s use of Twitter in specific. He seemed hard-pressed to hide his contempt for both, and that to me is emblematic of what is wrong with the CRTC.

He mentioned that “a masterful campaign” had been run to take down usage-based billing, and that people could be stirred up to oppose just about anything online. Moreover, he criticized Clement for breaking the news about the government’s decision to reverse the CRTC on usage-based billing on Twitter. He said that Canadians had elected the Conservatives (they didn’t really, given that it’s a minority government) in order to “get some adult supervision in Ottawa,” thereby implying that Clement’s use of social media – or how he’s been using it – is childish.

There seems to be a real vein of elitism in that position, that the unwashed masses generally don’t know what’s good for them so they should leave the rule-making to the grown-ups, who generally look down at the internet as some sort of unwanted child that unfortunately has to be tolerated. That really bugged me. It doesn’t help that French is also a former vice-president of Bell Canada – one of the chief criticisms of the regulator is that it’s a revolving door with the industry it governs, so taking such a stance won’t win him any friends with the anti-CRTC crowd.

But as I mentioned the other day, criticizing the government for taking a “populist” stance on an issue is pretty foolish: that’s how democracy is supposed to work. When a large number of people pipe up about an issue, politicians are supposed to listen to them. Doing so doesn’t make them opportunistic, it makes them responsible.

But criticizing how the message gets delivered? That’s another matter entirely. There doesn’t seem to be anyone associated with the CRTC, French included, who understands how Twitter works, or what it’s supposed to do. Clement, on the other hand, has mastered the medium – whether he’s done so purposely or just by dumb luck.

In the good ol’ days of just a few years ago, politicians would present their carefully crafted remarks at a perfectly staged event, followed perhaps by some meticulously scripted talking points during a very brief scrum with reporters afterward. There was very little that was spontaneous or real about the whole situation.

On Twitter, I’ve seen Clement engage in lively, spirited and off-the-cuff conversations with not just journalists, but every-day people too. He often defends his decisions, cracks jokes (he quipped the other day that he had ironically hit a cap in the number of people he could follow) and shares his thoughts on what is obviously a very big interest of his: music. Indeed, as a result of his interactivity and openness on Twitter, Tony Clement may very well be one of the most humanized politicians around.

Whatever you may think of his policies or decisions, you have to respect the fact that he is willing to listen and communicate. That’s the whole point of Twitter, if not the larger internet in general. This is something he should be praised for, not insulted over.

Don’t get me wrong, all the current problems with Canadian telecommunications – which are getting worse by the day – are the fault of inaction and errors by the minister and his government, and for that they need to be held accountable. Clement was also steadfast in getting rid of the long-form census, a bone-headed move if ever there was one, and he’s still heading up a potentially disastrous copyright reform bill.

But he has System of a Down on his iPod – a fact I learned from following his tweets – so he can’t be all bad, can he?


Posted by on February 11, 2011 in crtc, government, internet


2 responses to “In defense of tweeting politicians

  1. Alasdair

    February 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    I’ll likely be the last person to defend Mr. French on most of the points you raised, but to play devil’s advocate for a moment I do think there was a reasonable kernel of truth to his ‘populist’ scoffing. When the citizenry was up in arms against that very same Tony Clement over the long-form census decision, the government ignored the hue and cry. It governed as if the popular backlash warranted no response. Yet in the case of UBB, the minister wasted no time at all in racing to denounce the decision in a stunningly informal venue. So yeah, it did kind of seem kind of suspiciously responsive given that they aren’t always that way.

    As for whether Twitter is an appropriate medium for the message, I’m more on your side, so long as it’s a rarity. The last thing we need is a whole slew of government organs, departments, regulators, etc. operating on policy guidance statements of 140 characters or less!

  2. Sam Davies

    February 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    I largely agree with what you have stated, and have a similar stance. It is refreshing to have a minister who has taken it upon himself to learn a communications medium that a chunk of Canadians use. It’s great to have someone reaching out to Canadians who otherwise might not pay any attention whatsoever to anything political or governmental. But as Alasdair mentioned, imagine what things would be luck if *everyone* opted to take this approach – it would be a nightmare.

    I’m glad that Tony has given UBB the cockblock – it is the right thing to do. I guess I find it funny given that the gov’t that he serves is largely responsible for the circumstances that brought us to this outcome.

    Like you Peter, I don’t believe that the CRTC is the major villain that everyone makes them out to be. With that said, there certainly are various problems with regards to how the commission is set up, how it conducts its business via lobbyists, how it represents the interests of regular Canadians who do not have the knowledge or finances to gain their “ear”, and the very legislation that serves as the cornerstone for all that they do. It is up to the government to clean this up for the long-term. The CRTC needs a severe over-haul. Appointing a non-experienced political partisan to the commission is hardly a viable solution.

%d bloggers like this: