POPULISM AND POLITICS IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Both Canadians and Americans are once again debating the responsible use of Twitter as an instrument of political discourse.  The circumstances giving rise to that debate, however, could not be more different, and demonstrate a fundamental divergence in the expectations of the electorate in the two countries.

On August 2nd, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed alarm at the imprisonment of Saudi women’s and civil rights activist Samar Badawi, and confirmed that Canadians “continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi” (Raif Badawi is Samar’s brother, whose wife and children fled from Saudi Arabia to Canada as refugees following his arrest).  This was followed the next day a comparable Tweet on the Foreign Policy Canada account noting the same concern and “urging” Saudi Authorities to “immediately release them”.  In response to this affront, the Saudi government has expelled the Canadian ambassador, put a halt to any new trade or investment deals with Canada, cancelled all Saudi airline flights in and out of Canada and recalled all Saudi students currently studying in Canada.

Many have decried this imprudent use of Twitter as tool of diplomacy, and much scolding has been directed toward the Trudeau government, which might be fair if this were the first and only way that the Saudi government had been made aware of Canada’s views on these issues.  However, the government has made clear that these views had been made known to the Saudis through all normal diplomatic channels, and this assertion has not been challenged by any critic, including the Saudis themselves.  Fair enough, continue the critics, but then what was the value of this exercise in virtue signalling other than to embarrass the Saudis publicly and encourage if not foment domestic Saudi opposition to their policy?

Let’s deal with the meddling in domestic politics angle first.  Look at the wording of the tweets.  Chrystia Freeland is “strongly calling” for the prisoners’ release.  The FP tweet merely “urges” the government to immediately release them.  While the “immediately” part of the second tweet might sound a little shrill, they only upgraded the “strong call” to an “urge”; still well short of even a “demand” for which one could arguably anticipate consequences to refusal to comply.  It really sounds like they were carefully moderating the response to that which was the minimum required of a progressive government of the country in which the wife and children of one of the imprisoned activists has sought refuge to demonstrate to it s own domestic audience that is was fairly representing the values and interests of Canadians.  Yes, it was virtue signalling, but not gratuitous virtue signalling.  Given all that, the extreme Saudi response seems by far the more unreasonable action.

On August 14th, prolific Twitter star and sometime Head of State of the most powerful nation on the planet Donald Trump fired off the following tweet in response to the revelation that former Trump aide Omorosa Manigault Newman had secretly recorded conversations in and from the White House regarding her recent dismissal:

“When you give a crazed, crying low life a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out.  Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!”.

To voice and perhaps vent his disappointment in Omorosa, the President could have sent her an e-mail to that effect (but perhaps more coherently expressed), so there had to have been a shaming and our virtue signalling strategy at play here.  To that end, some have pointed out that the recording of conversations in the White House generally and in the Situation Room in particular, is certainly against White House policy and might be illegal.  Once again, fair enough.  So let’s look at the content of the tweet; no reference to breaches of policy or law or its consequences, just mocking references to mental health issues and emotional instability and a dehumanizing insult.  This was pure virtue signalling, where the virtue on display is a vague but unmistakable hostility toward the trifecta of people with mental health challenges, women and minorities.

Even when it comes to Twitter abuse, Canadians are laughably but commendably polite.

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