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Navigating Ontario’s Online Political Front Groups

RankandFile.ca

March 23, 2018

By David Bush

 

Last fall the Facebook page North99 exploded onto the social media scene. It went from nothing in the Fall of 2017 to one of the largest progressive social media accounts in the country almost overnight. It currently has 40,000 likes on Facebook, not quite half as many as Press Progress, a similiar social media project, but it is growing at nearly three times rate. Its social media posts have by far the widest circulation on the Left, well beyond any union, organization or progressive campaign. It bills itself as the Left’s version of Ontario Proud and Rebel Media.

North99’s content is clearly progressive and on the Left. It explicitly polarizes along class lines, standing up for Sears pensioners, taking shots at Doug Ford, Tim Hortons and Loblaws. When the new $14 minimum wage was rolled out and Tim Hortons was caught punishing its workers, North99 social media was all over the issue. One of its posts denouncing Tim Hortons was shared over 29,000 times on Facebook, two others were shared over 10,000 times each. Its posts denouncing Galen Weston and Loblaws for the bread price fixing scheme was shared over 60,000 times. It is a positive thing that North99’s baseline messaging takes aim at bosses and the rich.

On its website North99 states it is “a progressive media network for the many, not the few. Our contributors and supporters include progressive people across Canada united by a concern about rising inequality and the increasing influence of the far-right.” It says it is funded by small donations, roughly $1,000 a month, is volunteer run, and is non-partisan. But who actually runs the website and social media accounts of North99?

A Liberal front

North99 was federally incorporated under that name on August 14, 2017. It changed its incorporated name to 10363987 Canada Association on October 24, 2017. The name listed as a director is Geoff Sharpe. Who is Geoff Sharpe?

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 8.32.09 PMSharpe is a digital strategist who has strong ties to the Liberal Party. He was the President of the BC Young Liberals from 2011 to 2012. That’s right, the BC Liberals, the party that is so right-wing  that it makes the PC party irrelevant in the province. In 2012 Sharpe denounced the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) because of an email exchange between teachers where one teacher warned another not to cross the picket line during the 2012 strike or there would be shouting. Sharpe regularly displayed disdain for the BCTF and teacher unions stating, “definitely need to remember that teachers doesn’t equal BCTF. I know many who cannot stand the org[anization].”

Sharpe also worked as a digital media strategist on Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Liberal leadership campaign in 2013. After Wynne won, Sharpe was lauded for using techniques similar to Obama’s election campaign. At the time Sharpe was working for Navigator Ltd., the same $600-an-hour PR firm Jian Ghomeshi initially hired to protect his image after revelations about sexual assault. Navigator would later drop Ghomeshi as a client. After leaving Navigator Ltd., Sharpe now runs Sharpe Strategies, a digital media strategy firm.

The other name linked to North99 is Tara Mahoney. She is the daughter of Richard Mahoney, the former president of the Ontario Liberal Party. She worked for the Liberal Party of Canada’s national campaign headquarters as a front-end web developer.

North99’s links to the Liberal Party belie its claims of non-partisanship. This is clearly the work of seasoned digital media experts and political strategists who are looking to scoop up data and to push a partisan political agenda. But North99 is far from the only partisan front group utilizing social media in this way.

The Tories’ front

Ontario Proud, is by far and away the largest political Facebook page in Ontario and one of the largest in the country. Founded in 2016 by Jeff Ballingal and Ryan O’Connor, the page has over 330,000 Facebook likes. Ontario Proud blends a curious mix of non-political posts about great provincial attractions, the weather, or sports, along with political red meat for the right-wing. It constantly pumps out right-wing talking points on taxes, the minimum wage, climate change, xenophobia, terrorism, hydro rates. The goal for Ontario Proud is to target people who are not political junkies but are only moderately into politics. Like North99, Ontario Proud trumpets the the slogan “For the Many, Not the Few”, which is stolen directly Jeremy Corbyn’ Labour Party in Britain.

Ballingal is a former Tory operative who also worked for Navigator Ltd and Sun Media. O’Connor was the former Vice-President of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association and famously caught organizing students to infiltrate and defund progressive groups on campusesChris Spoke, who formerly worked at Sun News, is also involved with Ontario Proud.

Ontario Proud has spent well over $200,000 to targeted ads to build up its base of support. This was a clever way to make the most of new campaign financing rules that restricted spending of the third party interest groups. Ontario Proud says it is non-partisan and  promotes strategic voting. The page’s influence continues to grow as it stokes fear and confusion about the minimum wage. This year, Ontario Proud has even organized anti-Wynne protests at Liberal town hall events. The page’s success is breeding copycats in other parts of the country.

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 7.53.47 PMAnd the NDP…

The NDP has its own version of these groups, Press Progress. While Press Progress is not quite the same, it is more openly connected to the NDP as it is a creation of the Broadbent Institute. Its Facebook reach is massive, with over 100,000 likes, and the content on its website is designed to be easily understood and shareable with “clickbait” headlines.

Press Progress was launched in 2013 as an “independent, nonprofit newsroom” dedicated to fact-checking and breaking original stories. The Broadbent Institute, which created Press Progress, is a nominally independent think tank and research institute. Its role in the NDP world is to produce policy and leadership development. For instance figures and policies closely aligned with the Broadbent Institute were prominent in the Jagmeet Singh’s campaign. Some Broadbent people were even spotted voting down the prioritization of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) resolution at the recent NDP convention.

For all its progressive chops, the Broadbent Institute represents status quo in the NDP, often willing to partner with so-called progressive corporations, like Loblaws – which is funder of its annual Progress gala. It is not a mere coincidence that Press Progress has been completely silent on critiquing Loblaws despite its opposition to the $15 minimum wage, its tax avoidance schemes, its bread price-fixing scheme, and its recent layoffs. Those scandals were so galling that even the Liberal-aligned North99 took a shot at Galen Weston.

We still need an independent, bottom-up working class politics 

While it shouldn’t be surprising that online partisan front groups stir the pot, what is remarkable is how effective they have been with so little accountability. All of these groups are scooping up massive amounts of data, often directly collecting information through their own cynical petitions on hot issues. These groups show how empty much of the political landscape has become. Digital media strategists are running a shell game that treats ordinary working people as something to be manipulated and toyed with. Forget about all that nonsense about Russians on distorting democracy through social media. We need to look no further than the communication specialists and political parties in this country to see who the true manipulators are.

Workers face an uphill battle when they go up against big corporations and their government friends. We can win, but only if we organize ourselves, speak for ourselves and fight for ourselves. When it comes to the media they are rarely on the side of workers – they barely even report on labour and workplace issues anymore. The slick new digital media is no different. We can’t expect any favours and that is why we need our voices and our own media to cut through the spin. Everything else is just public relations.

 

[David Bush is a Ph.D. student at York University, a labour organizer active with the Fight for $15 and a writer in Toronto, Canada.]