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'Inauthentic activity' on social media, abuse of progressive women in politics … is there a common thread?

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Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. Image: Chatham House/Flickr

Is there a common thread running between reports Friday that a spike in "inauthentic activity" on social media just before the Alberta provincial election came from unidentified backers of the United Conservative Party and news stories Saturday about harassment of federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna?

It would be impossible to make an evidentiary link between the use of disinformation bots on social media by supporters of conservative political parties and violent threats directed at women candidates and activists.

Still, there's something more than timing that suggests the stream of false stories designed to rile up the conservative base, often reposted by high-profile conservatives, and the toxic abuse that sometimes threatens to overwhelm women candidates and office holders -- liberal ones in particular -- both have their roots in the role social media plays in the ecosystem of conservative activism.

The analysis of the Alberta election by Rapid Response Mechanism Canada made headlines when it identified "inauthentic, coordinated behaviour" not just by "known national far-right and hate group actors" but from within "the community of UCP supporters."

The group behind the report -- an initiative of the G7 industrialized nations to coordinate identifying, preventing and responding to foreign efforts to subvert Western democracies -- was very careful to note political parties could not be tied to this activity. But then, that's why such accounts use anonymous bots, isn't it?

It's a shame the RRMC chose not to name the sources of this activity it had identified.

Still, the many connections among members of Canadian Conservative parties' strategic brain trusts and social media organizations associated with false news, hateful speech, and "lock 'er up" rallies are pretty well understood.

Likewise, while the story about McKenna's recent encounter with a threatening man calling her "Climate Barbie" -- a term that may have been first tweeted by former Saskatchewan MP and Harper government cabinet minister Gerry Ritz -- is appalling, it's not a particular surprise to anyone who has followed Alberta politics since the elections of Alison Redford and Rachel Notley.

Of course, this is not just a Canadian phenomenon. But the use of violent and abusive language on social media, sometimes translating into actual violence, is becoming a particular problem for women in politics in North America, and, statistically, especially for those who hold progressive views.

It's unlikely we'll ever be told, but it would be interesting to be able to compare the statistics for threats against the current, male, Alberta premier -- Jason Kenney -- and his two recent female predecessors.

Add to this the propensity of prominent male conservatives not merely to be driven over the edge by women who disagree with them, but to think encouraging supporters to join in highly personal attacks on them is a legitimate political tactic.

Consider Kenney's use of a poster labelling environmental activist Tzeporah Berman as "an enemy of the oilsands."

"Since @JKenney announced his $30 million warroom to attack environmental advocates & this poster of me was held up at his press conference I have had death threats, misogynist & sexual attacks on social media," Berman tweeted in June. "This is what that kind of fear mongering & hate does."

Consider People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier's recent tweets calling 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg "clearly mentally unstable," which may have been a reference to her Asperger's diagnosis or simply vituperation, and telling supporters "she should be denounced and attacked."

Or consider Matt Wolf, Kenney's executive director of issues management, who published an unflattering screenshot of Edmonton climate justice activist Emma Jackson at an education rally, and accused her of working to "sabotage our economy" for her views on the environment.

"Cool to see Kenney's Executive Director of Issues Management doxxing me on the internet, really love the way he captured my 'before and after the UCP' look," Jackson shot back with better humour than Wolf deserved.

It's unclear if Wolf is considered part of the premier's war room, about which little has been heard lately, or if the quality of his social media comments reflect the tactics it is likely to deploy.

But it should by now be obvious to everyone the dangerous responses such attacks provoke among parts of the conservative base. This behaviour by people in responsible public positions needs to stop.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Chatham House/Flickr

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