When Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne recently blocked potential election rival Rylund Johnston on social media, he brushed on some unsettled rules surrounding officials’ social media use.
There are no rules guiding MLAs’ personal online conduct — roughly six MLAs don’t even have publicly accessible Facebook pages. Premier Bob McLeod, meanwhile, makes do with a website and a twitter page, which is six years dormant. And while there are rules around publicly funded websites, personal social media accounts are left to individual officials’ discretion.
Johnston, writing in a Facebook post, said the issue is “about whether MLAs can block their constituents from seeing the content on their social media accounts simply because they don’t agree with them.”
Despite being a minor incident, questions linger over who’s entitled to an MLAs’ social media accounts as public debate moves increasingly online.
“Many energetic debates”
Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart said social media was a valuable tool to connect with constituents and disseminate of information, especially with the high rate of Facebook use among residents.
“Part of using it well is making sure there’s clear community standards on how you engage with the public and how the public engages you,” he said. “As long as everyone plays by those rules, I think it’s a very good tool.”
Testart said he’s had “many energetic debates” online with people who disagree with him. As long as it doesn’t dissolve into disrespect and personal attacks, he said it was important to do so.
“If you do feel like someone’s being a problem, send them a note, give them a note. Say, ‘you’re violating our guidelines, please stop. This is your warning.’
“But make sure you’re explaining it to people because if you just jump straight to banning — the ban hammer, as they say — if you just start hammering people with bans and blocks, it can lead people (asking), ‘why did this happen? Why am I being knocked out of the public discussion?”
Nunakput MLA Herb Nakimayak, meanwhile, simply removes obscene or disrespectful posts. His account is more of a tool for communication with remote constituents and building trust with regular posts.
“I am able to listen, see, share and utilize the tools to help problem-solve or support my region much more effectively than jumping on the sled (which could be days away),” he said. “Some MLA’s have to walk 4 blocks and they have done their tours.”
“Too much garbage so I just backed off”
Tu Nedhe – Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu, conversely, hasn’t posted publicly since a constituency meeting event page in June 2018, which was his first post since the year before. Set to retire, he said he’s tried to back off from the tool — inaccurate information on the platform became too much.
He said social media first had a significant impact during the last territorial election, though he didn’t have Facebook at the time. It came to the forefront when Beaulieu claimed his opponent was spreading misinformation about his time in cabinet, which was “kind of bulls—t,” he said.
Roughly a week left in the campaign, Beaulieu’s campaign manager’s daughter urged him to respond online. He gave the go-ahead, and said it went “okay.” Two years ago, he followed up with a Facebook page.
However, he was again concerned about misinformation online, and users spreading inaccurate information. “I found there was too much garbage so I just backed off,” he said. Beaulieu prefers email and his advice is to never do constituent business over social media.
Nanendeh MLA Shane Thompson has a similar philosophy.
He uses his account to share government and constituent communities updates, but he advises working one on one, over phone or email. “Wild and crazy thing: use the phone,” he said.
Overall, he said don’t engage in negativity, and address concerns one-on-one.
“You’re no different than anyone else,” he said. “Being an MLA is just the job of being MLA. You’re representing your riding.
“Do I get happy when someone gets mad at me? No. But that’s part of the job.”
Social media is a tool, he said.
“If you don’t use it right, there’s going to be repercussions.”