We look at the shape of the digital discourses surrounding the Canadian election, before finding out that they aren’t coming from the deep web or 4chan—but somewhere much more familiar.
This might not surprise you, but Canadians don’t seem to have the same appetite for debate as our American neighbours to the south. The 2019 federal election featured two officially-sanctioned debates, the first of which took place on October 7 in English and the second of which took place October 10 in French. According to the Canadian Press, viewership numbers for the English language debate hovered around 3.6 million. While 10% of a country’s population tuning in to a political debate at the same time might seem like a good number, it’s actually on the decline: for 2011’s English-language debate, 3.85 million out of 32 million people tuned in. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. TV ratings are notoriously flaky in themselves, with a lot of the numbers relying on self-reported data from watchers. While these numbers did include those who watched on the CBC’s officially-sanctioned online stream, this way of attempting to quantify engagement doesn’t take into account new ways of engaging with mediated public events that are given by digital media platforms. One such example is engagement through Twitter: from the Oscars every year to significant news events, the short, immediate and public-facing nature of tweeting constructs a meta-commentary around a given event. Our Canadian politics Twitter capturing tool counted over 700,000 tweets sent the day of the debate, which represents almost double what was sent on the day before or the day afterward.
Keep in mind that this represents those who tweeted during the debate; while we can’t measure lurkers, we can assume that they numbered even higher.1
The digital discursive spheres of Canadian politics
There are more ways to consume the debate as a political event than television. Measuring the average amount of viewers at a given time, as opposed to a dedicated viewing of the entire debate, is similar to measuring those who monitored or engaged with Twitter discourses—it indicates an awareness and involvement with the event that’s happening. And while it may seem to make more sense to cover the tweets sent during the evening of October 21st’s election itself, it’s not as rich of a political event in terms of politics actually being done: by the time the election results are pouring in, the country has voted, and it’s closer to the brief respite of always being engaged in politics than a time for people to do discursive political work.
In the same way that the CBC’s TV channel is the media property with which one engages with this event, Twitter can give us similar central locations of engagement. The below graph is a representation of the network created among the top 500 accounts by mention during the period of the debate. It shows the general “shape” of the discourses that occurred on Twitter during the debate; the dots on the graph each represent a different Twitter account, and the closer together accounts are, the more likely it is that a user who tweeted at one account tweeted at another (or, the users that mentioned or replied to a tweet by one account are a close degree of separation away from tweeting at another one of the accounts that are located near to it). In short, the closer the nodes, the more similar the audience between them.2 The nodes on the graph are sized according to their “degree centrality”, which is a fancy phrase that means how much of the network moves through them.
We have four major leaders in this category: @elizabethmay, @parti_liberal, @justintrudeau, and @ezralevant. It’s no coincidence that these each, for the most part, occupy their own distinct groupings on the graph, and for the most part, distinct groupings on the political spectrum.3
With that in mind, let’s zoom in on the nodes that I’ve highlighted in red — our new right new mediasphere candidates from the last post, who together form a pretty strong discursive sphere of their own:
A few expected relationships, a few surprises, and a few that we didn’t know about beforehand, but aren’t surprising.
The expected relationships:
- The proximity between the properties. The Rebel, Spencer Fernando, the Post Millennial, and the True North Centre all occupy a highly similar audience sphere within these Twitter spaces. This basically shows the assumption that underlines the sphere as a single space: those who engage with one of these properties on Twitter also tend to engage with one of the other four.
- The proximity of a few of the accounts with their owners. Ezra Levant, as the face of the
Rebel, is engaging with the same audience.4 The same goes for Candice Malcolm, owner of the True North Centre and TNC.News. We even see Ali Taghva, tweeting at @ali_taghva, closely associated with his media property the Post Millennial, despite him not having the same past as a media commentator as Ezra and Candice prior to bootstrapping his own publication. Fernando is a special case, considering the synergy he’s built with his website/Twitter account/full name/political career.
- The proximity of a cluster of accounts associated with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, including @kellylorenczppc who ran for the party in the riding of Calgary Nose Hill, @ppc_retweets, @ppc_londonwest, and Mad Max himself, @maximebernier. Bernier, however, also rules his own discursive domain, as the two clusters are close but separate. This indicates that, while the Rebel especially has pumped Bernier’s tires as of late, the media sphere and political sphere in this sense aren’t one and the same.
- @WeAreCanProud, the Twitter account for the ‘Proud Network’ of Facebook pages that bang a similar drum to our new right new media properties (and are owned by Jeff Ballingall, who was brought on as the Chief Marketing Officer of the Post Millennial in May), is relatively out of the way of this data frame. While it’s certainly still in the same quadrant, the degree of separation between it and the sphere as-constituted by media properties and not meme pages indicates a particular audience configuration, one that might have to do with the differences in the type of media that they produce.
- The proximity of @Cernovich, the Twitter handle of Mike Cernovich, who rose to fame during the 2016 American election by peddling conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s pedophile sex ring and Parkinson’s disease. It seemed to depend on how he was feeling that day. You may also know him from his ‘Gorilla Mindset’ self-help Master Class, or his ‘Gorilla Mind Smooth’ nootropic supplement.
- The proximity of @BreitbartNews, which must make Ezra proud.
- The proximity of @NewWorldHominin, which, for the uninitiated, is the Twitter account of free-speech activist Lindsay Shepherd, the Harley Quinn to Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Joker.
A fair objection to this graph is that 500 is a large number. But we can see when we examine the frequency of the mentions themselves that not only does the new right new mediasphere share an audience, it plays a fairly significant role in election discussion on Twitter overall:
|account name||number of mentions|
If we ignore the leaders themselves (considering they’re the ones participating in the debate and are probably going to be discussed) and their parties (see above), we’re left with 24 of the top 35 accounts (35 is a convenient figure that ends at Canada Proud’s Twitter account). From there, we’re left with a collection of media pundits and companies. And considering we have all four websites from our outline post (plus @WeAreCanProud), alongside the Rebel’s Ezra and Keean Bexte and the True North Centre’s Andrew Lawton and Candice Malcolm, that puts us up to 8 of the remaining 24 top accounts. An entire third of the top mentioned media accounts during the day of the debate were a part of our new right new mediasphere.
The data is clear: the new right new mediasphere shares a relatively contiguous audience, and they dictate the political debates that occur online. And this brings us back to what puts the ‘new’ in ‘new right new media’: these properties, have quickly come to rule the roost when it comes to digital politics. They are making no attempt to build their presence as media hegemons using the syntaxes and infrastructure of traditional media—the (economic) barriers of entry are too high. But they’ve bootstrapped themselves with the average blogger’s toolkit: a WordPress website, some platform know-how (especially those, like YouTube and Twitter, that encourage broad public access to content), and a good idea of who to get chummy with in terms of mutual “sharing” power. And with that, as we see above, it’s a clear path to joining the media party.
Canada’s “alternative” media ecosystem?
If you’ve made it this far, you may be thinking: so what?
To answer this final question, let’s go back to our opening, where we briefly outlined Yochai Benkler et. al.’s theorization of the “alternative media ecosystem” that decided the 2016 American presidential election.
Benkler claims websites like Breitbart and the Daily Caller aren’t “objective” news websites, but part of a “propaganda pipeline” whose function was to be “radicalizing” (25), “tightly integrated [and] insular” (50), and to create “conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns” (82). And while their support for Trump tied them together, they’re oriented just as much against the historical institutions of American politics as they are towards Trump: as Benkler observes in his study, “[t]he antielitist and antiestablishment narrative adopted by Trump and Breitbart led toward attacks on traditional institutions on both sides of the political spectrum” (68).
Despite the nihilism required to take up the sort of social and political beliefs that the new right new media properties endorse, they don’t share the same anti-Democratic stance as Breitbart and friends. Spencer Fernando, for example, spent almost as much time praising Andrew Scheer the last year as he did taking shots at Trudeau for being a “globalist”. And, based on Trudeau’s minority victory in the election, the accellerated chaos of Trump isn’t in the cards just yet. But this isn’t to say that Benkler’s alternative media ecosystem hasn’t reached Canada: Ezra Levant wants the Rebel to be Breitbart; Spencer Fernando buttered his blog’s bread on stories of Hillary Clinton’s ill health and the spectre of George Soros, a common (antisemitic) trope of alt-right discourses; and inversely, Breitbart themselves have picked up the Bernier mantle. The ideas—and the medias themselves—that, according to Benkler, wreaked such havoc on the American election are not seeping up slowly; they’ve been around since at least March 2015, the month the Rebel premiered their first video. And while Canada may not have seen the sort of radical break moment that the United States saw in 2016, there’s evidence that a bigger game is being played.
Unlike the USA and her established media properties, many of Canada’s most prominent, well-staffed and well-resourced daily news properties are at an economic and ideological tipping point. Take this investigate report by Sean Craig that details a push from the higher-ups at the National Post to conscientiously move much farther to the right, to the point of calling an all-hands meeting in October 2018 to put the fear of god into anyone who dare not comply. Or consider the fact, earlier much detailed, that Sun Media newspapers—owned by Postmedia, the same company who owns the National Post—literally share reporters with the True North Centre and the Rebel. Even the Globe & Mail, Canada’s notoriously private and notoriously centrist national daily, greeted readers with the Rebel Commander himself’s smiling face and byline in their September 16 issue. Nobody can accuse Ezra of misunderstanding media cycles. He knew the coup that is getting into the pages of the normally austere, politically-neutered opinion pages of the Globe & Mail; and as far as the raw material of ideological conflict goes, such a move was a goldmine for both those critical of the Rebel and the Rebel itself.
Hence the framing of these new right medias as Canada’s “new right new media”, and not its “alternative media ecosystem”. These media may be new, and they may be alternative to the mainstream perspectives, but the difference between ours and Benkler’s thesis is that the new right new media in Canada is in the middle of a march towards osmosis with traditional properties.
Where the theses do overlap is their relation to the shape of each country’s right-wing party. But while Trump was the benefactor of a long right-wing political-media project that started as far back as Rush Limbaugh in 1988,5 the shift towards a politics of dogwhistled racism and teensy-weensy government up north isn’t coming from these same fringes. The difference between the alternative media ecosystem in the United States and Canada’s new right new media is that the latter is the establishment that Breitbart loves to hate. From its beginnings, it has been set up to be the new media proxy for the Conservative party of Canada. There’s Hamish Marshall, Andrew Scheer’s campaign manager, who was also a founder of Rebel Media6 and who joined Scheer’s leadership campaign while still involved in the Rebel’s operations. There’s the conspicuously long time it took Scheer to decide that he wouldn’t give any more interviews to the Rebel. There’s the dying breath of Stephen Harper’s last months running the Conservative Party, the “barbaric cultural practices hotline” that good (white) Canadians could call if they saw their neighbours engaging in something that looked a little too ‘foreign’. And the mastermind of that, Chris Alexander, developed a penchant for speaking at Rebel events. Not to mention Ballingall, he of the Proud Network and Post Millennial brand synergy, and his ties to the last two prominent conservative campaigns in Canada. Or the Manning Centre, where Levant and Malcolm and many others within the Conservative political ecosystem got their start, and their cash flow line to all of the other ‘Proud’ Facebook pages that Ballingall missed the boat on registering.
Knowing one’s enemy
If the above ties aren’t enough, consider that the chief function of the American alternative media ecosystem in the American election was to provide voice to the particularly virulent racism of Trump’s politics. You would think that if our sphere up north was really just an exercise in following the Breitbart manual of style, then Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada, would have at least won his own seat in his home riding of Beauce. But the data shows the real goal of the new right new mediasphere: taking down the one person who remains in the way of the Conservative Party’s ascension to power.
|hashtag||frequency during 7 October debates||frequency week after debates|
And who, among these hashtag users, are they getting their information from? (Note: the Buffalo Chronicle is a website that has popped up within the last week, and is closer to the genre of legitimately fabricated “news” as opposed to the partisan and connected personality sphere of the new right new media we’ve seen thus far.)
|top hostnames tweeted alongside #TrudeauMustGo||frequency week after debates|
The new right new media in Canada may be building an influence network with shares, audiences, appearances, hashtags and cross-postings, but to say that the development of this media sphere was as organic and sentiment-driven as Benkler’s diagnosed alternative media ecosystem is to miss the degree of mutuality that exists between new media and old Canadian politics. To only look southward for a diagnosis of the Rebel’s rise, the Post Millennial’s horizontal integration, Spencer Fernando’s coining the most popular anti-Trudeau hashtag (among users and bots), or the True North Centre’s direct employment ties with the company that owns 14 of the 20 top-circulating daily newspapers in Canada is to misread the ways that Canadian media differs from its neighbours to the south. Trump may have rode into the White House on a wave of anti-establishment rhetoric, but in Canada’s new right new mediasphere, establishment is the name of the game. And while the Liberal party managed to barely hold onto the balance of power after October 21st’s election, we still find ourselves on the other side of a radical, cohesive and all-encompassing transformation of the Canadian media landscape. This means new narratives and new norms of racial, social, and political mores. We aren’t watching the rapid fall of Infowars or Alex Jones in the United States, but the rise of a new nativism, created not from the conviction of some national mythos but in the meeting rooms and coffee shops of the established political right that it has been designed to serve.
“This is how it starts,” Andrew Scheer told a rapt audience in his concession speech, radiating the confidence of someone who knows something we don’t. “This is the first step.” He knows exactly how right he is.
Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Christian Paas-Lang, ‘Viewership up, but Format Questions Remain for Leaders’ Debates’, Burnaby Now, accessed 11 October 2019, https://www.burnabynow.com/viewership-up-but-format-questions-remain-for-leaders-debates-1.23971211.
- For those who do want evidence of this, I offer an anecdote: being a millennial, I do not have the patience for an entire debate, and did not watch the entire event. From what I missed, I saw some important moments clipped on Twitter—such as Jagmeet Singh’s very good joke ↩︎
- For the technically inclined: the graph is a Gephi network file generated by the Twitter Capture and Analysis toolkit (Reider and Borra 2014). It is a directed graph that is generated by taking every mention within a particular set of Twitter data (in this case, all tweets within our Canadian politics Twitter capture bin that occurred within the time period indicated in the above paragraph) and generating a directed link for these mentions. The shared degree of directed links indicates proximity. Considering that there were 774,711 tweets captured during the debate period, it does not visualize all of these, but the degree of separation is calculated in the backend and then mapped onto the Gephi file as the proximity factor. ↩︎
- The Green left, the Liberal centre, the Francophone Liberal discourses, and the new right, respectively. ↩︎
- Whether this is a branding consideration in the face of the channel’s loss of its most visible hosts in 2018 like Lauren Southern, Faith Goldy, and Gavin McInnes acting under his own name is up for debate. ↩︎
- The National Review called Limbaugh “the Leader of the Opposition” in 1993, according to Benkler, 31. ↩︎
- A lawsuit was launched against him and other Rebel stars in September 2019 for spreading hate speech, but it comes from a notoriously litigious lawyer with a love for slapping Levant with these types of suits. What is more interesting is the Conservative Party’s defense against the suit that, according to a spokesman in response to the linked VICE article, indicated “a political stunt with the help of a foreign entity on the eve of our election.” ↩︎