The Telegram’s Saturday front page story on Tory efforts to manipulate online polls and comments garnered two equal and opposite reactions over the weekend in that political echo chamber called Twitter. [The story isn’t free. it’s in the online subscriber edition]
Some people got into a lather over it.
Some other people tried to blow it off as something we’ve known all along, something everyone does everywhere, and no big thing.
Equal and opposite, if you will, but the big issue here is in the middle of these two opinion poles.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t note at the start that the Telegram piece is covering a well-ploughed patch. The Telegram piece is about just one thing:
Caucus members, political staff and select supporters regularly skew online media polls and use aliases to post comments on news stories, a well-placed source has told The Telegram.
It's a "very much controlled" effort to make the government look good and is led from the Confederation Building's eighth floor, according to a source close to the Conservative party, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Telly added an unnamed insider, but frankly, there wasn’t anything new in it.
There’s even been some fairly detailed research into the relationship between governing parties and the local talk radio crowd. MUN political science profs Alex Marland and Matthew Kerby published some of their research in “The audience is listening: talk radio and public policy in Newfoundland and Labrador”. It appeared in the November 2010 edition of Media, culture and society.
As far as skewing online polls is concerned, Marland and Kerby had their own share of insider accounts. For example: “This occurred only during the workday and not in the evening (one minister told us that party staff ‘go crazy’ clicking during the day).”
The Big Picture
Normal, sensible people will have a hard time understanding this. If you take it in isolation, the idea of dozens or hundreds of people getting paid by the public to vote in an online poll seems ridiculous. What you have to do is place it in a wider context. As SRBP put it in August 2006, “the government party will adjust its media activity to coincide with polling periods.”
The theory behind it is simple. Since there is only one pollster who collects data at regular, known and predictable periods, a flood of "good news" issued at the right time can reinforce positive feelings toward government or, at least, neutralize or counteract negative feelings.
That initial post demonstrated a fairly obvious correlation between spikes in positive news releases from government sources and polling periods. The second post in the series added in the nature of the local media market, while the third post showed the value of the CRA polls in particular in securing and maintaining political hegemony.
That’s a really big phrase that means simply that the polls become part of the justification for whatever government is doing: they are right because they are popular and popular because they are right. The idea even has a name: the permanent campaign. That’s another post from 2006, by the way.
Talking Point Politics
Getting everyone to do the same thing like clicking a VOCM poll online is one thing. Don’t miss the other part of this co-ordinated effort – getting everyone to say the same thing. Politicians, especially people supporting the government of the day, all wind up saying the thing. It isn’t by accident. Government communications people or paid consultants produce lists of approved statements. Call them talking points or media lines, their purpose is to get everyone saying the same thing in the same words.
The talking points cover the reasons they support a certain idea. In many cases, the co-ordination also covers points for attacking opponents or potential opponents.
Catch them on Twitter, in the House or on one of the local media outlets current affairs shows and you can be guaranteed that government supporters are working a plan. What winds up happening is that political discussion is more often than not a case of duelling talking points.
Not so long ago, NTV’s Issue and Answers could feature the NTV news director and lead political reporter talking to the Premier of the day, a guy they both referred to as Brian. They asked questions and he provided answers that went into the bigger picture and larger details behind a given issue. These days the show could be called Issues and Non-Answers just like CBC has a show that can too often seem like On Talking Point.
The Convenient Fiction
Part of the pretence of news and current affairs reporting these days is that what politicians say or what is in the news release is - still - the whole story. Not only are talking points the news but the talking points of today are the only ones that hold sway.The talking points get reported regardless of whether the talking points make sense in a wider context.
To be fair, this is not a local phenomenon alone; it’s common across the news industry. There are understandable reasons for what occurs, as well, but the problems it creates are real for people trying to understand what is actually going on.
Consider the sort of preposterous situations that this approach creates. In November 2008, local media reported that Danny Williams was excited that we were a “have province”. No more Equalization. Two months later they reported that Danny Williams was upset that we were not getting Equalization any longer. No mention of the earlier story.
Danny Williams campaigned before 2003 on a pledge that any deal with Quebec on the Lower Churchill would include redress for the 1969 contract. In September 2009, Kathy Dunderdale said publicly that she and Williams had spent five years trying to get Hydro-Quebec to sign a deal that included no redress. No one has reported her comments.
In April 2009, local media reported – as government ministers said – that Labrador hydro-electricity could run through Quebec without a problem. By September, they were reporting (and continue to report) that Nalcor cannot export electricity through Quebec. The Emera deal breaks the supposed stranglehold. Has any conventional media outlet in the province ever reconciled the two contradictory stories?
The Story Underneath
What appears on the surface is likely not the story at all, let alone the whole story. Once you accept that idea, you can start to look at other things for clues as to where we should direct our attention.
The story underneath the obvious is often way more interesting.