30 January 2017

Mean Tweets #nlpoli

In the United States,  a late-night television program created a regular feature that has celebrities read the comments made about them on Twitter.

The comments are - to borrow the words of Constable Joe Smyth - "rude, inappropriate, [and] hateful". He was speaking about comments aimed at politicians but his description of many Twitter comments.

Americans laugh at them.  Some of the celebrities offer a pithy comment in return or flip the bird.  But most laugh.

On Jimmy Kimmel's show they call the segment "Mean Tweets".

Cyberbullies and Politicians

In Newfoundland and Labrador,  a cabinet minister who has been on the receiving end of the same sort of comments calls it "cyberbullying" and goes to the media, handpicking reporters so they will tell the story she wants them to tell. It is a story about how wrong these comments are and how unsettling she and her family finds them. 

Prominent women come forward to claim - without a shred of evidence - that this is all about hate for women.  They ignore the fact that the minister just brought down an unpopular budget and that what she got was generally like the stuff people have said about her male predecessors who have introduced similar budgets, less the obvious references to her lady parts.  A couple of months later,  some enterprising reporter will tell us about all the words of support the minister got.

On a personal level, Cathy Bennett's news conference was a brave thing to do.  It is very hard to discuss your strong emotional reaction to this stuff.  It is hard on your family.  But on every level out beyond that,  Bennett's news conference and the support she garnered primarily from her political associates come across as patronising, paternalistic, and condescending.  The whole thing had the unmistakable odour of place and privilege and superiority.  

You see, as noted here before,  bullying is a power relationship.  Cathy Bennett remains one of the most powerful people in the province, full stop, end of story.  You say something genuinely threatening to her and you *will* have a visit from police and you will become intimately familiar with the gears and grinders inside the Canadian judicial system.  

You cannot bully Cathy Bennett with something you say on the Internet. You cannot bully her because you cannot make a bullying comment stick. You are not more powerful than she is. You can harass her. You can threaten her and those terms have such clear legal meaning in Canada that you will wind up in jail over it. 

These are not subtle distinctions.  They are important distinctions.  Words have meaning.  Like "inappropriate"  as in the term "inappropriate communication" that you heard quite a bit for the six days that Constable Joe Smyth spent on the stand at the Barry inquiry.  In the world Smyth worked in for five years, that phrase means something very specific.

The United States Marshal Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the United States.  One of its duties is to protect federal judges, courts, and United States Attorneys.  The USMS Office of Protective Intelligence defines inappropriate communication as “any communication made either in writing (including e-mail), by telephone, verbally, through an informant, or otherwise suspicious activity that threatens, harasses, or makes unsettling overtures of an improper nature directed at a protectee, which by definition warrants further investigation. Threats are included in the term inappropriate communication. Thus, all threats are inappropriate communications, but not all inappropriate communications are threats.”

"Threatens."  Petty clear.

"Harasses."  Pretty clear.

"Or makes unsettling overtures of an improper nature." Maybe not so clear. 

Think here of a stalker. Might be someone romantically obsessed with a judge or a lawyer.  Maybe someone who thinks the court official is sending coded messages that only the stalker can receive pledging undying love.

What does "inappropriate" mean?

You will see the word "inappropriate" used a fair bit in the six days in which Smyth was on the stand.  Sometimes it was used to refer to Smyth's own behaviour but the references of concern here are when Smyth or someone else used it to refer to things Smyth encountered in his work guarding Kathy Dunderdale,  Tom Marshall, or Paul Davis.  

That's when the word appeared to lose its very specific meaning and become much more imprecise. Like when Smyth talked about going out to visit folks who had made "inappropriate comments" that did not apparently constitute any form of threat or harassment in the sense of criminal behaviour.  Smyth or one of the other officers dropped in to have a chat about the "inappropriate" comments and then everything was cleared up, apparently.

This is an impression, to be sure, and at this point nothing more than an impression. We don't have anything in the way of concrete examples in the evidence presented thus far to show what Smyth and his colleagues considered "inappropriate".   We just have general comments. Those general comments suggest that Smyth and his colleagues strayed from the definition in Smyth's training or in the examples from protective units like the Marshals Service.  In the Dunphy example specifically, Smyth seemed to include in his assessment of "inappropriate" in the January 25 cross-examination the fact that Dunphy made repeated comments. The content wasn't necessarily as important as the fact they were made quite often.  And that the word "dead" turned up in them once in a while, irrespective of context.  

Then there is the way Smyth used the word "inappropriate" in between rude and  hateful in the comment quoted above.  In that sense, Smyth was talking about politeness or some other middle class notion of decorum. The three words look to be related in the way he used them.  Two of the three don't carry with it that protective service connotation like "inappropriate" does. The protective services clearly have in mind stalker behaviour or something of that sort.  

Smyth reinforces this non-police meaning of the way he used "inappropriate".  He uses the three words to make the point that there are thousands - to use his number - of "inappropriate" comments directed at politicians that he and his colleagues have not investigated.  If the police did not investigate those comments then they were clearly not actually "inappropriate" in the way protective services would define the word.  They were not precursors to violence.  They were just not nice. 

To make sure we are clear on what protective services mean by "inappropriate" look at an examples from the United States Secret Service.  They have been responsible for protecting the President and Vice President of the United States since 1865. They are arguably the most experienced public protection service in the western world with the most sophisticated tools and techniques at their disposal.  A feature in The Atlantic included two examples of what the most experienced dignitary protection unit in North America considers inappropriate communications.  Here's just one of them.

In June 2012, a fellow named Jarvis Britton tweeted "'Free speech? Really? Let’s test this! Let’s kill the president!' and “I’m going to finish this, if they get me, they get me! #ohwell. I think we could get the president with cyanide. #MakeItSlow." The next day, he tweeted “Barack Obama, I wish you were DEAD!”

Following the June tweets, the Secret Service spoke with Britton and advised him of “the seriousness of the matter,” according to a secret service agent interviewed for the piece. But “no further action was taken” until Britton resumed tweeting threats several months later.  

On September 14, 2012, Britton posted the message “Let’s kill the president. F.E.A.R.”   The Secret Service's Internet Threat Desk detected the comments.  A Secret Service charged the guy: “Based upon the foregoing, I have probable cause to believe that Jarvis M. Britton did knowingly and willfully threaten to take the life of, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”


The Dunphy shooting is a different matter, but all the talk about "inappropriate" comments this past couple of weeks - especially the Cathy Bennett stuff -  struck a very familiar chord.  You used to hear the Conservatives complain about negativity the same way people have referring this past couple months to "inappropriate" comments.  

The thing to remember is that the Conservatives politicians used the word negativity to mean any comment that doesn't support them. They complained about it to silence any form of criticism or dissent.  They weren't just going after the rude or even hate-filled things people said.  They went after anything they didn't like.

April 2013.  Former cabinet minister Trevor Taylor used his column in the Telegram to decry the "negativity" in political discussion.  The Conservatives even went so far as staging a political lynching of a New Democratic Party member of the House of Assembly, curiously enough on the same day Taylor's column appeared.  Gerry Rogers' crime was not anything she said or that she had endorsed. The Conservatives attacked her in the House and ejected her from the chamber because her name appeared on a list of members of a Facebook group that contained comments highly critical of Kathy Dunderdale.

The Conservatives were highly agitated in 2013. They'd fallen in the polls the year before over Bill 29 and the spring budget increased public anger.  You can find testament to that level of political anxiety in a special operations plan drafted by Joe Smyth and submitted on April 7, 2013 recommending additional action because of what Smyth called "a general sense of heightened security concern" as a result of the budget.

Political Anxiety 

Smyth's document is a fascinating insight into his own way of thinking, but what we should note for this post is his description of the environment in which political staff operate.  Public reaction to the budget had been strong, Smyth observed,  and that the reaction  was "being expectedly propelled by traditional media outlets..." Smyth said. The "proliferation via social media applications has been considerable and cause for safety and security concern."

After conduction a dubiously-reasoned assessment of a threat,  Smyth recommends additional security action but it is worth noting that Smyth himself  indicated that all the anxiety and social media agitation had turned up precisely nothing in the way of actual threats or actionable comments.  "Although no specific threats were identified, unsubstantiated reports of comments such as one suggesting a bullet be put in the Premier's head were conveyed to Protective Services." [Italics added]  Smyth dismissed the absence of specific threats and the unsubstantiated nature of the reports by speculating that the comments had been removed.

"Other concerns have been brought to the attention of Protective Services from staff within the Office of the Premier," but, as Smyth noted,  "they are widely anecdotal vs specific examples...".   The concerns came from " communications personnel inside various Government departments who have been bombarded and seemingly overwhelmed by constant negative comments being received through various media forms about the budgetary reductions." [Italics added]

Smyth included a list of individuals the police considered to be of interest to them.  None of them were tied to the budget or to the social media groups Smyth noted.  On top of that, Smyth added what amounted to a great deal of anxiety among political staff but none of that anxiety, rumour and speculation actually added up to anything.

Unless your humble e-scribbler has missed something in the evidence thus far,  nobody was ever charged by police for comments made on Twitter.  Indeed, it doesn't look like they were ever the subject of a police investigation such that they were cautioned prior to meeting with a police officer. That's the sort of detail that highlights the rest of Smyth's comments:  no specific threats. Unsubstantiated reports. Anecdotal versus specific examples.

And then there is the communications staff,  political staff with a very high public profile being  "bombarded and ... overwhelmed by constant negative comments."  That world Smyth described among the political staff goes a long way to explaining a great deal of the political reaction we saw in things like the Rogers lynching.

But as much as people in politics are on the receiving end of comments they may find difficult and stressful, their emotional reaction doesn't transform the comments into something that is either criminally wrong or politically worthy of suppression by any means. We should note, however, that there have been repeated efforts to suppress free speech in Newfoundland and Labrador by politicians over the past decade and a half.  Indeed, one premier wanted to get rid of constitutionally protected freedoms in the House of Assembly.

In making that observation,  though we must separate out legitimate police work in assessing threats and acting against them. There's plenty of evidence that those threats existed.  The list of persons of interest in Smyth's special operations plan contain descriptions of just those kinds of threats.  We must also take notice of the fact that even with an unprecedented commitment of police resources to protecting politicians between 2011 and 2015,  the police didn't really turn up anything but the sorts of actions they'd been able to address without having four full-time officers on protection detail  and another four available to take the job up as a secondary duty.

No matter how objectionable people like Cathy Bennett or Kathy Dunderdale may find comments made by ordinary citizens about what the politicians are doing,  they are  - more often than not  - just harsh words.  The politicians would be well-advised to understand that and maybe take some advice from Americans.  They know how to deal with free speech,  real threats, and mean tweets.