The following article appeared in the October 5 edition of the Guelph Mercury;
Embarrassment and an act of contrition may have been the outcome of recent revelations that at least two municipal election candidates and one campaigner insider used fake names on the Guelph Mercury’s 59 Carden St. blog. But a political scientist and a blogging Guelph city councillor seeking re-election say the controversy will likely not much affect the outcome of the Oct. 25 municipal vote.
It was revealed last week that mayoral candidate Karen Farbridge’s campaign manager Cathy Downer used a host of aliases on the blog to defend Farbridge’s record as mayor of the city over the last term and to criticize previous city council under former mayor Kate Quarrie.
Software used by the blog’s administrators showed that in several cases, comments from multiple named authors originated from a single unique computer IP address. Incidents of numerous names stemming from the same IP address are common on the blog, although most visitors use a single alias or their own name.
Downer said last week she believed the civic affairs blog was strictly anonymous and that she was not alone in using aliases on it. She insisted she commented on the blog without Farbridge’s knowledge. While many called for her immediate resignation or dismissal, Farbridge said last week she would keep Downer on.
Mayoral candidate and former city councillor David Birtwistle, and Ward 4 council hopeful Cam Guthrie were both highly critical of Downer’s actions on the blog, and both insisted it is wrong for campaign insiders to comment anonymously. But it turns out both have also engaged in using aliases on the same blog.
Birtwistle appears not to have posted comments on the blog since he filed papers to run in the campaign back on April 13, whereas in the month of September alone, Guthrie commented using six different names on the blog, often applauding his own candidacy.
Ward 2 councillor and candidate Ian Findlay, an avid blogger, said the controversy will blow over.
“I have no doubt in my mind that this will not influence the election, and I don’t think any candidate will withdraw as a result,” he said. “I don’t think it’s resonating with most people in the community. I think there are a lot of other issues they are more concerned about — jobs certainly being a big priority for people in the community.”
Findlay said he “worked the phones” over the weekend and no one raised the issue of the blog aliases as an issue of concern.
“Nobody brought it up,” he said, adding that questions about garbage, the environment and advanced polls were foremost on the minds of voters in contacted.
“The aliases, it’s unfortunate,” Findlay said. “But emotions are very high right now. We are in an election campaign and sometimes there isn’t always the clarity of thought there should be.”
Mercury managing editor Phil Andrew said the blog issue “has been an interesting matter to observe journalistically.”
“I don’t regret our coverage decisions,” he said. “But it has generated good in-house discussion about the stewardship of our blogs and we’re always open to suggestions of process improvements on this and other areas.”
The Mercury has never established a rules of engagement policy in relation to the public’s use of its blogs, he added. “The newspaper moderates comments and reserves the right to delete comments and even block commentators as it deems appropriate.”
Findlay said rules of engagement should be clearly defined, and there needs to be a consistent policy for users.
University of Guelph political scientist Tim Mau said posting anonymously on blogs is common practice, because people don’t always want to have their viewpoints associated with them personally.
“I don’t think that necessarily makes it right,” he said. “It’s always obviously best, if you believe in something, to be forthright about it and stand behind the comments you want to make.”
But Mau does not believe the issue will have an impact on the campaign. Blogs, he said, consist of comments by “a bunch of anonymous people spouting off, and you don’t know if it’s one person, five people or 100 people,” he said. “So they are not a particularly good judge of anything. It’s just idle chit-chat as far as I’m concerned.”
While there may be “a little embarrassment” among those who got caught using a number of aliases, Mau said he doesn’t expect anyone’s campaign to end over it. Blogs have little influence on the average voter, he added.
Robert Routledge, the campaign manager of Ward 1 candidate Karolyne Pickett, has recently been a frequent contributor to the 59 Carden Street blog. He uses his own name and states his affiliation to Pickett with each comment.
“What she’s really trying to do,” he said, explaining his upfront approach, “is run a campaign that’s about including people and building the best possible ideas, and a foundation of that is transparent communication. As an extension of transparent communication, knowing who is saying what and what their bias is will help simplify a lot of things for people.”
Campaign insiders commenting anonymously on a blog “doesn’t demonstrate a style of communication that will make people trust their elected official,” he said. The manner in which a candidate or campaigner communicates is important, whether at the door, in meetings or online.
“What you are seeing on the blogs, I can understand it being interpreted as a trivial issue, but at the same time, how people communicate is as important as what they are communicating,” he said, concluding that some voters will be influenced by the blog controversy.
“I think where most people’s decisions are going to be made is at their door,” he added. “I think the highest predictor of who someone votes for is someone asking them to vote for them.”
Continued examination of the origins of 59 Carden Street blog comments has so far not turned up other candidates or campaign insiders using multiple aliases.