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Twitter and elections: tales from the Twilight Zone

Posted by jsallot under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary, Media Commentary, Post-election

Jeff Sallot

Following the early East Coast  results on Twitter election night while TV and radio broadcasts were still blacked out in my time zone was like stepping through a door into another universe that was being run by the Mad Hatter and the cast of Saturday Night Live.

It was bizarre and often funny, but the sober morning-after message is clear: we better damn well fix our voting laws here in Canada before the next election to accommodate this new parallel universe where real-time communication has a global reach.

If we don’t we risk corrupting the electoral process.

And those of us in the journalism biz may find the value of our coin – credibility – greatly debased.

Let’s look first at one of the Mad Hatter’s unwitting enablers, an Australian named Bernard Keane.

From his remote outpost in Canberra, far from the legal reach of the Canadian Elections Act, Keane, a free speech activist, was tweeting election results from the Atlantic provinces when the polls were still open in Quebec and points west.

Those many hundreds of tweeps who were determined to thwart the law’s time-zone blackout rules saw this gaping loophole. Publicly reporting early results in the East to audiences in the rest of Canada where polls remain open is illegal.

The law applies to the net as well as to national broadcasters like the CBC and CTV.

The key word is publicly.

If you live in Halifax  you could lawfully call your brother in Vancouver just before he goes to vote and tell him what Peter Mansbridge has to say about the early results during the East Coast only feed of the CBC.

Likewise, as Keane and friends note, it is legal to send an email, a private communication, from your living room in Halifax to someone in Canberra, or anywhere else in the world.

Keane felt this loophole allowed him to perform a public service for Canadians. He would cut info from the flood of emails he started to get and paste it into tweets.

The problem, Keane soon discovered, was that he had no way for him to know whether the emails he was getting had valid information. He couldn’t even tell if the emails were coming from Canada.

“Bear in mind I can’t verify these. I may be being fed crap,” Keane tweeted at one point before his messages disappeared in the tsunami wave that was the #tweettheresults hashtag feed on Twitter election night.

In fact, more than a few scammers were out there, sending bogus numbers to Keane and to the scores of other online repeater nodes that were spontaneously being set up in the U.S. and around the world.

The scammers may have just been having fun. But I also thought I could see the shadow of partisan political operatives who were trying to influence West Coast results by reporting bogus East Coast numbers.

The SNL cast wannabes in Canada and abroad began to notice the #tweettheresults feed trending globally. At one point the feed was the most active on the planet, a chart topper that was generating more traffic than #osama or even #bieber.

It took awhile for many of the non-Canadians to figure out that the feed had something to do with our election. Let’s face it, #tweettheresults is the kind of hashtag that might well attract sports fans and funsters.

I was seeing Bruins-Flyers hockey scores streaming past along with false reports of Tory cabinet minister Peter MacKay’s defeat in his Nova Scotia riding and jokes like this: “The test results came back. I’m pregnant. #tweettheresults.”

I’m not sure whether that was good news for some soon-to-be daddy, or not. Or even it was true.

But let me set the record straight on one very important item. Despite premature tweets from somewhere, the Vancouver Canucks have not yet won the Stanley Cup. I know. I just checked the newspaper.

And that’s the real point for journalists. A twitter hashtag feed that started out as an effort to spread news quickly can soon be taken over by all sorts of people whose purposes are not journalistic.

After about an hour I simply gave up trying to find trustworthy poll results on the feed. The flood of tweets was overwhelming, 300 to 400 new tweets a minute.

If I had persisted I could have identified a few reliable sources and filtered out the tweets by others.

But my eyes wandered over to the TV screen where an episode of the Twilight Zone was airing on the CTV all-news network. There was Conservative strategists Tim Powers, sitting in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where many poll results were already clear. He was being asked by a CTV journalist in Toronto to predict what kind of night it would be for the Tories.

Powers, of course, already knew how well the Tories had done in his part of Canada. And you can be damn sure the journalists working in the CTV newsroom all knew as well. Only the poor viewers were out of the loop.

We need to fix this nuttiness.

We can’t treat voters in vast swaths of Canada like idiots and lemmings whose votes will be so easily influenced by reports – false or real – from the East Coast.  Better to let them get reliable info from broadcast networks.

However, there is an argument to be made that folks in Central and Western Canada might be advantaged over those in the East Coast by having significant  last-minute information before they vote.

Why should a voter in B.C. be allowed to cast a strategic ballot on the basis of his understanding of a national voting  trend when his sister in Halifax doesn’t have the same information? That wouldn’t be fair.

The fix is not that complicated. Let voters cast ballots during regular hours in their own time zones. But let’s not count any ballots until we can count all of them at the same time.

Surely, in the 21st Century a country like Canada  has the means to secure ballot boxes for a few hours in ridings in Eastern time zones until the rest of the country has caught up.  We can all count at the same time.  We can party together like we will when the Canucks do win.

Jeff Sallot, a former Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, teaches multimedia journalism at Carleton University. This article also appears on the J-Source.ca web site