Candidates from ethno-cultural communities were victims of online abuse


By Lincoln DePradine

Olivia Chow

Chinese-Canadian Olivia Chow is now mayor of the City of Toronto, winning the job in a by-election last month in which there were several Black candidates and some from other ethno-cultural communities.

It’s certain that these candidates would have been the victims of online abuse, if a report on municipal elections in Canada is to be believed.

The report, compiled by the Samara Centre for Democracy, tracked online abuse in eight municipal elections for school board trustees, councillors and mayors, not including Toronto’s June 26 mayoral race.

“Abusive tweets were common in mayoral races; however, school board trustee candidates also received some of the highest volumes of abusive tweets, many in the form of threats and identity attacks,’’ said the report.

The election monitoring was done using what’s called the “SAMbot project’’, a multi-year machine learning initiative that measures abusive content received by Canadian political candidates online. 

The Toronto-based Samara Centre for Democracy, founded in 2007, says it’s a non-partisan charity with a mission “to secure a resilient democracy with an engaged public and responsive institutions’’.

It explains that, as part of its mandate, it “conducts research and brings people together in order to enhance civic engagement in Canada. We want to make it easier to talk about and participate in politics’’.

According to the Samara Centre, the work done through the “ SAMbot project’’ is designed “to illuminate the realities of abuse on the digital campaign trail and the barriers to civic engagement created by technology’s influence on our democratic culture. To date, SAMbot has been used to analyze over 3.6 million tweets received by over 1000 candidates across 10 elections – one federal, one provincial and eight municipal’’.

The eight municipal elections, held in 2022, were in Toronto, Ottawa, Brampton, Vancouver, Surrey, Winnipeg, Yellowknife and Charlottetown.

Across these elections, the Samara Centre said evaluation was done of more than “465,000 tweets received by 524 Twitter accounts belonging to city council, school board, and park board candidates, along with political party accounts’’.

Mark Saunders

The Centre, in a document titled, “Online Abuse in Local Elections: The SAMbot Municipal Report’’, said it “found more than 86,000 abusive tweets with high volumes of online abuse in the Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Brampton and Surrey elections. Our previous SAMbot reports established that online abuse is a significant problem in federal and provincial elections. These new findings reveal that digital toxicity is affecting our municipal elections as well’’.  

The Samara Centre describes “identity attacks’’ as “negative or hateful comments targeting someone because of their identity’’.

The report shows that identity attacks were “a significant form of abuse in a number of elections, with attacks concentrated to specific candidates. High levels of identity attacks particularly affected local online conversations in Ottawa and Brampton. In the Charlottetown and Yellowknife elections we found limited candidate presence on Twitter (and therefore limited abusive content), which suggests that the online political conversation in those locations is taking place on other platforms. This points to the need for more robust research into abuse across different social media platforms’’.

The Samara Centre claims that abuse on the municipal campaign trail, “facilitated by digital technologies’’, is a danger that could lead to a reduction in “participation and representation in our democracies’’.

The Centre reiterated the point in its executive summary, saying that “online abuse is a barrier to active participation in our democracy. It can disrupt political conversations and even prevent people from entering politics’’.

The “bedrock’’ of Canada’s democratic system is municipal election, said the Samara Centre.

“Vibrant local governments contribute to a healthy political culture by encouraging civic engagement, fostering a sense of community and nurturing the values and practices of democratic governance,’’ it said. “Understanding the role that digital abuse is playing in our local democracies is critical for understanding the health of Canadian democracy writ large.’’

Hong Kong-born Chow, 66, won the City of Toronto’s mayoral by-election – that was contested by 102 candidates – capturing more than 269,3000 votes.

Ana Bailão was second to Chow, with more than 235,000 votes, followed by former Toronto Police Chief, Mark Saunders, who garnered in excess of 62,000 votes.

The only other Black mayoral contestants to receive votes in the double digits were Mitzie Hunter and Chloe Brown.

More than 21,000 people voted for Hunter, and Brown picked up greater than 18,000 votes.

Last month’s Toronto by-election was triggered by the February resignation of ex-mayor John Tory, after he admitted to an extramarital affair with a former staffer.