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Meet the Face­book group try­ing to re­shape Cana­dian politics

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Jen Ger­son

Meet the Face­book group try­ing to re­shape Cana­dian politics

It’s around din­ner­time in a down­town Cal­gary bar, and Jeff Ballingall is boast­ing. He’s taken a break from his stomp­ing grounds in On­tario to at­tend Stam­pede, Cal­gary’s great, rowdy cow­boy cos­tume party and rodeo. Ear­lier in the day, he’d seen Al­berta’s ND P premier Rachel Not­ley go by in the Stam­pede’s pa­rade. He booed. (A mem­ber of the premier’s staff said she didn’t hear any boos.) He seems to take pride in ril­ing up a crowd. Ballingall is the force be­hind On­tario Proud, a con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing Face­book group. It is not for­mally af­fil­i­ated with the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party — or any po­lit­i­cal or­gan — but, in only two years, it has de­vel­oped an au­di­ence large enough that the group can cred­i­bly claim to be as in­flu­en­tial as many main­stream news out­lets on so­cial me­dia. (Ballingall him­self has not been shy about tak­ing a slice of the credit for help­ing to de­feat Lib­eral premier Kath­leen Wynne dur­ing the last On­tario elec­tion.) CBC Toronto is liked by about 150,000 peo­ple on Face­book; On­tario Proud — run by Ballingall, a video ed­i­tor, an in­tern, a few free­lancers, and a ju­nior con­sul­tant — has been liked by more than 390,000, and its con­tent re­li­ably racks up hun­dreds more com­ments, likes, and shares than the news sto­ries posted by es­tab­lished out­lets. Al­though the group’s real-world in­flu­ence is dif­fi­cult to quan­tify, Ballingall will hap­pily sup­ply en­gage­ment sta­tis­tics that he says sug­gest On­tario Proud’s easy, memetic con­tent is reach­ing mil­lions of peo­ple. It has am­bi­tions to reach many mil­lions more. Ballingall plans to ex­pand his model and says he is work­ing with teams in Al­berta, Bri­tish Columbia, and Que­bec to form sim­i­lar groups. Al­ready, he has set his sights on Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau. Ballingall cre­ated On­tario Proud in 2016, loosely mod­el­ling it af­ter sim­i­lar Face­book page Al­berta Proud. A life­long con­ser­va­tive with links to rightwing politi­cians, par­ties, and me­dia out­lets, Ballingall was sick of risk-averse po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns and po­lit­i­cal jobs that didn’t al­low him to con­nect with vot­ers on so­cial me­dia. Cre­at­ing his own Face­book page, by com­par­i­son, gave him con­trol. Fi­nally, he could talk about the things that made him pas­sion­ate, the things that in­spired his “vis­ceral” ha­tred for the On­tario Lib­er­als — their co­zi­ness in of­fice, poor fis­cal man­age­ment, and all-around pa­tron­iz­ing airs. (The On­tario Lib­er­als were be­set by scan­dals in the years lead­ing up to their de­feat. One ex­am­ple: David Liv­ingston, a former chief of staff to then premier Dal­ton Mcguinty, was re­cently sen­tenced to four months in jail for wip­ing gov­ern­ment com­put­ers in con­nec­tion with the can­cel­la­tion of gas-fired power plants in 2011.) To Ballingall’s de­light, the page took off. “It was just easy, easy, easy,” he says, adding that he thinks the Lib­eral Party has no real ide­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tions and would have said sim­ply any­thing to re­tain power. “Peo­ple were so hun­gry for it. They were so an­gry about their hydro bills and so an­gry about Lib­eral cor­rup­tion, and so it was like a breath of fresh air.”

Raised in sar­nia, On­tario, Ballingall stud­ied po­lit­i­cal science at Western Univer­sity while work­ing in the Cana­dian Armed Forces as are­servist. “I then de­cided that the lack of sleep and hard­ships in­volved in the mil­i­tary were not as fun as politics,” he says. In 2007, he worked on con­tract for the Cana­dian Tax­pay­ers Fed­er­a­tion; it was an elec­tion year, and his du­ties in­cluded chas­ing On­tario’s then premier, Dal­ton Mcguinty, while wear­ing apinoc­chio cos­tume. Sim­i­lar work fol­lowed, but even­tu­ally, Ballingall says, “I re­al­ized that I hated be­ing a po­lit­i­cal staffer. Work­ing on po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns is one of the most ag­gra­vat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.... there are so many id­iots....you have to work un­der peo­ple who are so risk averse.” Af­ter a year of trav­el­ling, he came back to work at Toronto city hall, and then to the fledg­ling and doomed Sun News Net­work, headed by Kory Ten­ey­cke — who would later go on to be­come Doug Ford’s cam­paign man­ager in the 2018 On­tario elec­tion. At Sun News, Ballingall worked as a mul­ti­me­dia pro­ducer and learned the art of the tabloid. He pos­sesses the rare ed­i­tor’s knack for strik­ing a nerve, one that has trans­lated seam­lessly to so­cial me­dia. “I was good at Face­book,” he says. “[Sun’s] TV sta­tion never got rat­ings, but we did re­ally well on­line, so I knew there was a lot of ap­petite for what we were do­ing.” On­tario Proud has been dis­missed as a Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive as­tro­turfer: a third-party ad­ver­tiser that de­lib­er­ately mim­ics the aes­thet­ics and style of grassroots ac­tivists. As such, it can eas­ily flout no­tions of ac­count­abil­ity that hem in po­lit­i­cal par­ties. (Ballingall dis­putes the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.) A third party, for ex­am­ple, can make mis­lead­ing or in­flam­ma­tory state­ments that a main­stream po­lit­i­cal party would con­sider too risky. On­tario Proud can call an ND P can­di­date a “nutjob” with­out fear that such in­cen­di­ary lan­guage will re­flect poorly on the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party. Third-party ad­ver­tis­ers run the gamut, from unions or ad­vo­cacy groups like the An­i­mal Al­liance of Canada to the Cana­dian Nurses As­so­ci­a­tion and the On­tario Korean Busi­ness­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion. Many have a well-de­fined pub­lic face: unions have mem­bers and or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tees; pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tions gen­er­ally pub­lish staff and board lists. On­tario Proud’s fi­nan­cial records have not yet been made pub­lic. Ballingall says 1,300 donors both big and small have con­trib­uted funds to what was once an out-of-pocket boot­strap or­ga­ni­za­tion. A Pow­er­point pre­sen­ta­tion leaked to The Wal­rus this sum­mer showed that On­tario Proud was seek­ing $700,000 in fund­ing to “in­form,” “in­flu­ence,” and “mo­bi­lize” vot­ers ahead of the 2018 elec­tion — roughly the spend­ing limit placed on third-party or­ga­ni­za­tions in On­tario. Much of the fear over third-party ad­ver­tis­ers is ex­ag­ger­ated, ar­gues An­drea Lawlor, a po­lit­i­cal-science pro­fes­sor at Kings Univer­sity Col­lege at Western Univer­sity. She says there ac­tu­ally aren’t very many third-party ad­ver­tis­ers, and the ones that do ex­ist aren’t nec­es­sar­ily ef­fec­tive at sway­ing elec­tions. (The sit­u­a­tion in Canada is in stark con­trast to the United States, where po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees and su­per PACS are both plen­ti­ful, enor­mously well funded, and play a much more prom­i­nent role in shap­ing pub­lic dis­course.) But the role of third-party ad­ver­tis­ers is start­ing to change with the rise of so­cial me­dia. “Now peo­ple are re­al­iz­ing they are get­ting more bang for their buck with on­line ad­ver­tis­ing,” Lawlor says. That al­lows rel­a­tively small ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets to stretch fur­ther. “Twitter is free. Face­book is free. Only when groups are pay­ing to place ad­ver­tise­ments do we get into the zone of what’s reg­u­lated.” In other words, a re­ally savvy so­cial-me­dia man­ager who has a tal­ent for the vi­ral hit — some­one like Jeff Ballingall — doesn’t have to spend very much money to in­flu­ence and reach peo­ple. In a po­lit­i­cal and me­dia land­scape where cash is tra­di­tion­ally traded for at­ten­tion, this gives groups like On­tario Proud an enor­mous ad­van­tage. On­tario Proud’s suc­cess at nav­i­gat­ing this new world may be notable, but Lawlor isn’t sure the group has in­flu­enced elec­toral out­comes — it seems bet­ter able to col­lect like-minded vot­ers than to per­suade its crit­ics. “A lot of peo­ple sim­ply don’t have the time...to spend read­ing through the news,” Lawlor says. “So­cial me­dia and memes...can be used to stir up dis­sat­is­fac­tion with a par­tic­u­lar party or can­di­date or leader. It can be used to en­gage in a more neg­a­tive style of cam­paign­ing.” The con­cern is that these groups cre­ate echo cham­bers that in­su­late the elec­torate from com­pet­ing points of view, de­bas­ing the po­lit­i­cal process and cre­at­ing shrill, clash­ing hordes that can’t find com­mon ground.

“You won’t be­lieve this crazy ND P Pol­icy,” reads the ti­tle of one of On­tario Proud’s most pop­u­lar videos. Omi­nous mu­sic plays over a series of stock videos and photography. “An­drea Hor­wath and the ND P will de­clare On­tario to be a sanc­tu­ary prov­ince,” reads a script on­screen. “It means any­one can il­le­gally cross the Cana­dian border,” in­sists the clip, shift­ing to a video of a nurse’s sta­tion, “and get tax­payer­funded health care and so­cial ser­vices in On­tario.” That video gen­er­ated over 4,000 com­ments and 40,000 shares. Ballingall’s con­tent gen­er­ates enor­mous in­ter­est. It also gen­er­ates a great deal of con­tro­versy among those who be­lieve his wares are par­ti­san, mis­lead­ing, or out­right racist. Lawlor notes that On­tario Proud seems to pro­duce two kinds of con­tent. There are the be­nign, pos­i­tive mes­sages: “Like if you know who this is,” reads a mes­sage stamped on a pic­ture of coun­try singer Sha­nia Twain. “Share if you’re proud she’s from On­tario.” But then there are much more pointed mes­sages. Else­where on the Face­book page, a video — “Top 10 stupid things Justin Trudeau has done as PM (so far)” — which shows him danc­ing to bhangra mu­sic while wear­ing a kurta and notes his gov­ern­ment’s pay­ment to Omar Khadr. Ballingall flatly de­nies that On­tario Proud is racist or con­sciously en­gages in dog-whis­tle politics. “We don’t talk about so­cial is­sues, and I don’t talk about iden­tity politics. I feel like a lot of peo­ple are just sick of that,” he says. “It doesn’t mat­ter what you look like, it doesn’t mat­ter where you are from, it doesn’t mat­ter who you love. I think you have a place in

On­tario Proud....[we are] talk­ing about bills, about ev­ery­day con­cerns and debt and scan­dals and dis­hon­esty.” And memes that raise ire or con­cern about On­tario be­com­ing a sanc­tu­ary prov­ince? Those have noth­ing to do with race, Ballingall says. “That has to do with mak­ing sure On­tar­i­ans of all back­grounds get the ser­vices that they need...that those who fol­low the rules are re­warded in­stead of peo­ple who break the rules.” In the days af­ter the mass shoot­ing in Toronto’s Dan­forth neigh­bour­hood, On­tario Proud posted a set of pictures memo­ri­al­iz­ing two young vic­tims; an eigh­teen-year-old wo­man named Reese Fal­lon and ten-year- old girl Ju­lianna Kozis. The young man re­spon­si­ble for the shoot­ing was also found dead at the scene. He was de­scribed in the me­dia as be­ing of Pak­istani ori­gin, and in the af­ter­math of the vi­o­lence, his par­ents re­leased a state­ment not­ing that he had long suf­fered from “se­vere men­tal health chal­lenges.” The top com­ment un­der­neath that On­tario Proud post came from a Face­book user named Joe Lima: “Those peo­ple are, in my opin­ion, the prob­lem we have in the world. They are the can­cer that is spread­ing out of those coun­tries. They are pour­ing into western coun­tries and our sym­pa­thetic in­ept govern­ments are al­low­ing it to hap­pen. When are they go­ing to re­al­ize that those peo­ple are not like us, they have a seed of evil in their minds. It runs in their blood.” Ballingall dis­misses most of the crit­i­cism of On­tario Proud as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. “It’s only a prob­lem now,” he says, “be­cause we on the op­po­site side of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum got bet­ter at it....i be­lieve we need more voices in politics — that con­ser­vatism needs voices and in­flu­ences out­side tra­di­tional par­ties and politi­cians.” Ballingall and his mes­sage are get­ting louder and stronger. With lit­tle prompt­ing, he pulls out his phone to show his lat­est stats. (He does this of­ten.) On­tario Proud has had some of its best-ever weeks since the last On­tario elec­tion ended, he says. “In the last twenty-eight days, 17 mil­lion peo­ple reached. Post en­gage­ment up 101 per­cent since the elec­tion, post en­gage­ments 9.1 mil­lion!” With num­bers like that, Ballingall is as­cen­dant in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles. He has earned the in­flu­ence and con­trol that long eluded him in more con­ven­tional streams of me­dia and party politics. Ballingall is el­lip­ti­cal about his broader ob­jec­tives — he says that “my own goal is to have fun, ad­vance my ide­o­log­i­cal ideals, and build a plat­form for fu­ture busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions” — but his am­bi­tions are now both na­tional and fed­eral. Shortly af­ter the On­tario elec­tion, the group posted a meme show­ing Wynne and Trudeau in the frame: “Wynne down. Trudeau to go,” it read. “That’s the beauty of so­cial me­dia,” Ballingall says. “It’s democ­racy at work. It’s mod­ern democ­racy.”

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