Sunday, 10 April 2016

The spread of ignorance

The ability for bloggers like myself to self-publish raises some significant questions.

By Eric Bowling

Compare the different projections of Provincial Debts:

A flash application I designed to demonstrate the different values listed for provincial debts. Notice how some jurisdictions, like Ontario, Quebec and all of the Maritimes, seem to have set numbers while the western provinces' numbers seem to vary. Note that Alberta's figures will likely be quite different from the budget to be released on April 14 as these numbers are from the October 2015 budget.

April Fool's Day has come and gone, but it remains questionable how much one should trust what they read on the internet on any given day anymore. Even understanding something as topical as provincial debt can get very confusing.

To say our mass media is no longer the gatekeeper of information is an understatement – the entire fortress has crumbled away. The digital revolution has given everyone a voice and some have chosen to use it to inform the public. Citizen journalism is now an active and vital part of new media. But alongside citizen journalism we also appear to be witness to the birth of citizen propaganda – ordinary people who use the internet to espouse the cause of their chosen political brand.

If you have a decent variety of Facebook friends and use your news feed to find stories that involve local politics, you probably have had a link like this suggested to you.

A recommended article taken from my facebook news feed. is a rather spiffy looking web site that offers “Conservative News, Views and Gossip.” A visit to their website shows a series of top stories involving Muslims secretly forcing their beliefs on people through the federal Liberal party, a headline about Rachel Notley spending 15 minutes lying, a news category entitled “End Times” and one of the most outrageous terms of service I have ever seen – claiming the right to fine people who hyperlink to the website up to $100,000. The website also directs you to like the Facebook page “Canadian Fuck Ups” which essentially serves as an outlet for the blog.

Interestingly enough, the website’s sole piece of contact information is an email address, floptuf at gmail dot com, which a quick Google search reveals belongs to a Philip Hofer of Sylvan Lake, Alberta. The email also is the point of contact for the web sites, and the now defunct According to Hofer’s YouTube channel, he drives a water truck in the oil patch.

Regardless of how factual or even original Hofer’s writing is (much of his content appears to be re-posted from other news sites), he is a popular read among the far-right these days. Most of his articles seem to garner at least 150 shares apiece.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum is – an unapologetically pro-NDP blog by David Climenhaga. Climenhaga is a former journalist turned communications officer who worked for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and now works for the United Nurses of Alberta. Climenhaga’s blog is a bit more researched than Hofer’s, but it is not without its blatant spin. For example, take a look at this headline:

Taken from

Climenhaga also routinely takes jabs at the special interest group the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, best known for its infamous “Debt Clock” which casually dials up to the government’s projected gross debt. In a recent blog post, Climenhaga chided the CTF for working up a commotion by showing the Alberta government's debt as a gross debt figure instead of a net debt figure.

“I don’t think showing a net position is fair,” said Scott Hennig, Vice President of the CTF, “The money they set aside in the heritage fund, which is what they net against, is not earmarked for debt repayment.”

Hennig acknowledged that the debt does not actually increase in the way it’s presented on the CTF’s website – usually money is borrowed in chunks. Instead, the debt clock takes the projected debt from a government budget and averages it out over the entire year.

“It’s entirely a communication tool.”

The image of a steadily increasing number certainly is provocative, but it’s worth noting that there are other debt clocks that provide radically different numbers that the number the CTF presents. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also produces a debt clock that is noticeably different in its framing of the books.

Taken from the CFIB's Debt Clock.

“I stick to the fiscal comparisons used in the federal government's Fiscal Reference Tables, published in October of each year,” explained Ted Mallet, Chief Economist for the CFIB, “In Alberta's case they use net financial assets‎.”

The CFIB is not the only differential voice on the debt front. Economists at both TD Canada Trust and the Royal Bank of Canada each publish a report that has its own take on the public books.

Published yearly and updated quarterly, the Provincial Balance Tables are written for businesses to help aide in their decision making. Both reports offer nationwide summaries of provincial budgets from a wide variety of angles – ranging from listing provincial debts against GDP to retail sales and housing starts.

But even these numbers, compiled by economists for purely economic reasons, have to be taken with a grain of salt. RBC Economist Laura Cooper pointed out that their numbers are only as good as what they are given.

“We just re-produce the figures the government provides,” said Cooper, “It’s putting all the information from the provinces in one place.”

This all begs the question: why all the discrepancy about just how much the government is in the red? Wouldn’t we all be better off with just the basic facts?

“To me this is a political shell game,” commented Jay Smith, a professor of political science, “It’s setting the narrative. They’re trying to determine how people will look at these issues.

“This is a very strategic way of getting the parties in line and the electorate in line.”

But there is a clear difference between the framing of government data by special interest groups and the no-holds-barred frankness of political bloggers such as Hofer and Climenhaga.

Organizations like the CTF and CFIB (as well as groups such as Greenpeace and UNICEF) seem less interested in which side of the political spectrum supports their agenda so long as they are getting support. Usually these groups advocate for their cause to a standard that governments are seldom able to achieve. For example, the CTF was highly critical of the Harper government’s deficits and Greenpeace has had a field day with the Notley government’s position on the Energy East pipeline.

Similarly, there have always been think-tanks that take right or left leaning spins on factual data – both the Fraser and the Parkland Institutes have been providing well researched partisan views on the world and have provided some good insights on many topics.

Both of these types of groups seem to manage a delicate balance between their political goals and maintaining an arms-length level of bipartisanship.

But this third type of political blogger has burst onto the scene with surprising gusto. With their credibility often being based on the reader not being able to trust the mainstream news, they are able to push whatever narrative they so choose. 

The effects of the spread of these alternative realities can already be seen on our political landscape. For decades we’ve all had that friend or neighbor with the tinfoil hat. But today we are in an era where Donald Trump, who could very well be the Republican nominee for president, calmly took the stance in a Republican debate that Vaccines cause Autism and was no worse off in the polls for it.  Conspiracy theories, once the domain of the fringes of society are creeping ever closer to the statistical norm.

It would seem we are as much in the information age as we are in the misinformation age. However, while the fringes of Canadian politics may be making a great deal of noise right now, the various movements may run out of steam.

“These purpose of these messages, in effect, is to galvanize a political base,” explains Smith, “It’s to remind them that ‘we can’t let any other party get in.’

But if you use that narrative all the time, it just wears off.”