Canadian political blogs exploded in popularity dur- ing the 2006 federal election, as they did in 2004 during the US presidential election. On blogs, peo- ple discussed the day’s events and announcements, critiqued media coverage and sometimes produced original journal- ism. Every Canadian media organization included blogging in their coverage in one way or another. And several stories carried in the mainstream news originated on blogs.
Some of the bloggers don’t seem to match their names. The author of Dissonance and Disrespect wears a suit and has a neatly trimmed mustache. On the other hand, Joey deVilla, of The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century, lives up to his name, breaking out the squeeze box for his rendition of Britney Spears’ ”œBaby One More Time.”
Only one refuses to give his real name: Buckets, of Buckets of Grewal. He says there’s been some unpleasantness about his blog in the past, and he wishes to stay anony- mous, even in the ”œreal world.”
The real world in this case is Fiddler’s Green, a pub in Toronto, where bloggers of all political stripes have gathered for a post-election ”œblogstravaganza,” organized by Bob Tarantino of Let it Bleed, a Conservative blog, and Jason Cherniak of Cherniak on Politics, a Liberal one.
Those who know the people here better than I tell me there’s a distinct split in the room: Conservatives on one side, progressives on the other. Still, I manage to have con- versations with both without too much conflict.
People are better-behaved, of course, in the real world. People say nasty things about Warren Kinsella on the blogs, but here he’s the centre of a small cluster of bloggers. Other clusters form around Andrew Coyne and Antonia Zerbisias, the other ”œprofessional bloggers” in the room.
The impact of blogs has often been debated. Many dis- miss bloggers as malcontents in pyjamas with too much time on their hands. The BBC’s Paul Reynolds recent- ly said that, to the mainstream media, blogs ”œare seen as the rantings and ravings either of the unbalanced or the tedious.” He went on say that he believes blogs are, in fact, an important source of criticism and information.
In February 2006, a Gallup Poll released an American survey that put reading blogs at the bottom of a list of 13 popular online activities, well behind e-mailing and check- ing news. Nearly 60 percent of those asked send they never read blogs.
Still, one in five people surveyed said they frequently or occasionally read blogs, about the same proportion that said they download music.
Ultimately, the impact of blogs depends on who’s doing the reading and who’s doing the writing. Stephen Taylor, co-founder of The Blogging Tories, is one of the most prominent political bloggers in Canada. He says bloggers broke several stories during the cam- paign, citing his own posts about Ralph Goodale’s dealings with Earnscliffe and Steve Janke’s posts about Liberal MP David Smith and government contracts with his company, Abotech.
Additionally, bloggers of all politi- cal stripes parsed and analyzed every party policy announcement, although they were usually only critical of those of the ”œenemy” party. While bloggers did do some reality checking, there were some miscues, as well.
Taylor and Kate McMillan, of the blog small dead animals, collaborated on lengthy posts trying to convince their readers that Martin had orchestrated a dust-up with the US early on in the cam- paign, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal.
Martin addressed the conference on December 7. ”œTo the reticent nations, including the United States, I say this: There is such a thing as a glob- al conscience, and now is the time to listen to it, now is the time to join with others in the global community,” he said. Reaction from the White House was swift. At a meeting with Frank McKenna, Canadian ambassador to the US, Jim Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, said Martin’s comments were a slight against President George W. Bush.
Later on, US Ambassador David Wilkins weighed in, without mention- ing Martin by name. ”œIt may be smart election-year politics to thump your chest and constantly criticize your friend and your number one trading partner,” he said. ”œBut it is a slippery slope, and all of us should hope that it doesn’t have a long-term impact on the relationship.”
Martin fired back, fittingly, at a BC lumber mill, saying he was not ”œgoing to be dictated to as to the subjects I should raise.”
Taylor and McMillan smelled a conspiracy. They thought the entire row was cooked up to make Martin look tough in the face of US opposi- tion. Their evidence? A set of TV ads praising Martin as a leader who can stand up to the American administra- tion were filmed before Martin’s speech and aired afterwards.
Both bloggers went into great detail to show that ads that aired before Martin’s speech and those aired after it were filmed on the same day, comparing the backgrounds of the shots, patterns of water puddles on the streets, even the position of the hands on a clock in the background. ”œThe ads are a little too pre- scient,” wrote McMillan. Their readers praised them for exposing Liberal cor- ruption. The idea that Martin’s team might want to portray their leader as more willing to stand up to the Bush administration than Stephen Harper, with or without a speech at a climate change conference, was lost on them.
Despite the missteps, there were some stories that blogs can legiti- mately claim as their own. On December 9, Mike Klander, executive vice-president of the Ontario wing of the Liberal Party, posted an entry on his blog entitled ”œSeparated at Birth.” The post showed pictures of NDP candidate Olivia Chow and a chow chow dog with the caption ”œChow and Chow Chow.” The first indication that Klander might get into trou- ble for this post appeared on his own blog on December 22: ”œIt would appear that more people viewed my blog than the small circle of friends it was intented [sic] for. I apologize if anyone was offended by my com- ments…they were meant to be in jest.” He also said he had deleted the posts.
The next day, Bruce Campion- Smith wrote about Klander’s blog in the Toronto Star‘s Election Notebook. ”œFederal New Democrats are mad about a blog posting by an Ontario Liberal organizer comparing NDP candidate Olivia Chow to a dog,” he wrote. The article indicated that the entire blog had been deleted ”œsoon after the Star con- tacted senior Liberals seeking com- ment,” and that Klander had apologized. ”œThose were, in my view, the appropriate actions,” Steve MacKin- non, executive director of the Liberal Party, told the Star.
The article did not appear on the Star’s Web site, but users of the ”œbabble” discussion board on rabble.ca, a progres- sive news and opinion Web site, began discussing Klander’s blog that night. The content of Klander’s blog remained visi- ble through its cache on the Google search engine even after it was deleted, so one person on the board posted a screen capture of the ”œSeparated at Birth” entry. Others went further back in the Google cache, digging up posts in which Klander called NDP Leader Jack Layton an ”œasshole” and a ”œweasel.”
Paul Wells, of the Maclean’s maga- zine blog Inkless Wells, then wrote about Klander and the Star story on Christmas Day. Wells also went looking through the blog’s Google cache and found that Klander thought that Tory leader Stephen Harper ”œcreeps people out,” and his cowboy hat made him ”œlook gay.” From that point, word of Klander’s blog spread across (mainly Conservative) political blogs, many of them posting as many incriminating excepts from it as they could find. Some bloggers echoed Wells’ prediction that ”œchow chow” would be bigger than ”œbeer and pop- corn,” referring to Liberal communica- tion director Scott Reid’s infamous criticism of the Tory child care plan.
Klander resigned on Boxing Day. News of that announcement spread across the blogs even faster than the orig- inal report, making it all the way up to American columnist Michelle Malkin’s blog, one of the most widely read conser- vative political blogs on the Web.
So, after a five-column-inch story about ”œSeparated at Birth” appeared on page 6 of the Star, the deletion of the blog and an apology from Klander were enough for senior Liberals. After bloggers became aware of Klander’s blog and wrote about it, posted earlier excepts from Klander’s blog, showed pictures, and spread the word to other blogs " publishing more information on the topic than any newspaper ever could " only then did Klander have no choice but to quit.
Given that, it’s hard to argue that bloggers had no impact on the election. But could they actually change the result of a vote and bring down an MP?
During the campaign, Michael Geist, an internet law professor at the University of Ottawa, expressed his concerns on his blog about a Liberal candidate’s close ties to the entertainment industry.
Geist had taken Sam Bulte to task before for her close ties to the enter- tainment industry, in a Toronto Star column shortly after the release of a report on copyright law from the Canadian Heritage Standing Committee in May 2004. In Geist’s opinion, the recom- mendations of the Bulte Report were ”œremarkably one-sided” in favour of copyright holders at the expense of the rights of consumers. He also said Bulte had accepted campaign contributions from organizations representing rights holders. In the column, Geist recom- mended that ”œparliamentarians involved in the copyright reform process should refuse all such contribu- tions to ensure that the perception of absolute impartiality is preserved.” (That recommendation would eventu- ally become his ”œCopyright Pledge.”)
Bulte replied in a letter to the Star, bristling at the ”œallegations that my work in Parliament has in any way been influenced by donations that I have received.” Move forward to December 2005. On her campaign Web site, Bulte announced that she would be holding a fundraiser January 19, four days before the election. Sponsoring the $250-a- plate event were luminaries from the music, television, film, publishing and computer-gaming industries. Geist wrote about the event on his blog, in a post entitled ”œThat’s What Friends Are For,” again stating his opinion that it’s inappropriate for someone crafting new copyright law to accept contributions from organizations of copyright hold- ers. That post was picked up on New Year’s Day by Boing Boing, one of the most widely read blogs on the internet, with an estimated 300,000 readers a day. News of Bulte’s fundraiser spread across the political and technology blogs from there, including into Bulte’s riding, Parkdale-High Park in Toronto, where Joey deVilla, the Accordion Guy, lives.
Geist and Cory Doctorow " a Canadian writer living in the UK, and one of Boing Boing’s contributors " continued to follow the story, all the while making it clear that nothing Bulte was doing was illegal, just sus- pect. DeVilla produced editorial car- toons lampooning Bulte’s fundraiser, including the Dr. Seuss-inspired ”œGreenbacks and Sam.”
At the Parkdale-High Park all- candidates meeting, deVilla and other bloggers took notes, asked questions and recorded video. At one point, blog- ger Steve Stinson asked all the candi- dates to take Geist’s Copyright Pledge. Some said they would. Bulte replied that she is defending the rights of artists and ”œwill not allow Michael Geist and his pro-user zealots…to intimidate me into silencing my voice.”
The video of Bulte’s response was quickly posted to deVilla’s blog. Bloggers watched the video, wrote about it, and many dubbed themselves ”œpro-user zealots.” The phrase appeared on bumper stickers sold through CafePress.com. Bulte respond- ed to Geist’s claims at various points in the campaign, once denying that the dinner was a fundraiser at all but instead a ”œcelebration of my support for the arts community.” This despite the fact that it was specifically promot- ed as a fundraiser on her own website. In a Globe and Mail article on the din- ner, Bulte threatened to sue Geist. ”œI am not going to sue him before the election but dammit, watch me after the election,” she said.
After the votes were counted and Bulte lost the riding to NDP candidate Peggy Nash, bloggers celebrated, but were quick to share credit. ”œIt is diffi- cult to quantify, but I’m fairly confi- dent that the on-line community had a real impact in Parkdale-High Park (although I again hasten to add that without a strong candidate running against Bulte this definitely would not have happened),” wrote Geist.
”œIt would probably be wrong to declare that ”˜The Internet’ or ”˜The Blogosphere’ was the sole factor in Ms. Bulte’s ouster, but it probably helped get the word out,” wrote deVilla.