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From Facebook to faceoff: The bumpy road to shaping local politics



Back in 2015, Asheville Politics was one of a handful of fledgling online platforms seeking to increase public engagement at City Council meetings. Nearly eight years later, the Facebook group’s membership has grown tenfold to over 11,000 members, reflecting social media’s dramatically increased importance in politics at all levels.

“There just aren’t that many public forums for people that want to talk about politics,” says longtime activist Robyn Josephs, an administrator for multiple Facebook groups, including this one. “You could sit in a coffee shop and talk to one person, but you can sit in Asheville Politics and type at 12,000 people,” she notes.

That broad reach is why Bailey Stockwell is a frequent poster, sharing information about events listed on another Facebook group, East Asheville for Safety and Truth. She co-founded E.A.S.T. last November to oppose the low-barrier homeless shelter proposed for the former Ramada Inn on River Ford Parkway.

“Social media is such a convenient way to keep up with what’s going on and find out when and where you need to be to advocate for those things that you care about the most,” says Stockwell. Since its creation, her group has grown considerably both in size — it now boasts some 2,600 members — and scope, having broadened its focus to cover local politics in general.

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Cross-posting events on Asheville Politics, such as a Sept. 8 candidate forum at the East Asheville Library, enables Stockwell to reach thousands more people. Yet she says she doesn’t always feel welcome on the site.

“If you make any comments that are right-leaning, they will attack you,” Stockwell maintains, adding that she and her fellow E.A.S.T. administrators “call it an echo chamber.”

But former Asheville Politics administrator Rich Lee, one of the group’s founding members, says he hears “equal amounts of complaints that we’re not making it safe enough for conservatives as that we’re not making it safe for progressives.”

And despite their differences, both Lee and Stockwell say their respective groups have real-world impact on local politics.

“I’ll call certain people I’ve met off of the page and be like, ‘Hey, you need to be here,’” says Stockwell, citing strong attendance at both the candidate forum and a Sept. 6 neighborhood meeting about the proposed town house development on Pinnacle View Road in Oakley.

Meanwhile, Lee maintains, “Some of the most dedicated readers of Asheville Politics are local officials. Almost anytime I talk to them, they mention a recent conversation on AP.”

Whatever a particular group’s politics may be, however, participants will all pretty quickly confront the challenges inherent in any freewheeling, ongoing public conversation. And opinions vary on how much that rough-and-tumble interferes with achieving posters’ goals.

Backyard party politics

According to Lee, the folks who created Asheville Politics in November 2013 looked to backyard parties as their model when considering how to moderate the content.

“If you had a party at your house and somebody was hogging the stereo or just shouting everybody down or being belligerent, you wouldn’t think twice about saying, ‘Dude, you’ve got to cut that out,’” Lee points out. “Nobody expects your backyard to be a forum where people are free to express themselves in the most obnoxious or overbearing ways.”

That approach continues to guide the group’s administrators, says Josephs. When they take down posts, she explains, it’s “because the intent is to be unkind. It’s not the content: We want as many different voices as possible.”

Longtime member and frequent poster Andrew Celwyn, who became an administrator when Lee stepped down in 2019, says, “We have suspended several members for being rude or offensive to another member, but we don’t remove people unless they repeatedly violate the rules.” The most common reasons members are removed, says Celwyn, are for posting on national rather than local issues or for posting ads. He did, however, recall one person who was removed for posting anti-vaccine information.

“It is a left-leaning page,” Celwyn concedes, adding “we try not to be in the business of shaping what gets put on the page, other than keeping it local and trying to keep it centered on politics.”

One way Asheville Politics differs from other local pages — and perhaps makes the exchanges more like in-person conversations — is its policy of banning GIFs and memes.

“A page like ours pushes people to refine their arguments and make them better, so they have a greater chance of influencing our elected officials and others,” says Celwyn, adding that his own appointment to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board is an example of online involvement turning into real-world action.

Similarly, Lee credits his group with inspiring the property tax grant program introduced in Buncombe County, Woodfin and Asheville last year. “I can confidently say that that idea entered the local discussion through Asheville Politics,” he asserts. Now in its second year, the program lets homeowners apply for up to $500 to help cover housing-related expenses such as property taxes, mortgage payments and insurance.

Celwyn also highlights another kind of impact, calling his group “the id of local liberal politics that doesn’t always get its way but is often driving where it’s eventually going.”

Both sides now?

When E.A.S.T. membership grew large enough that Stockwell knew she couldn’t continue to single-handedly manage the page, she wanted to assemble a politically diverse group of moderators. The idea, she says, was “to find some trusted people that are versatile in their beliefs.”

Of the five administrators, Stockwell and two others are registered Democrats; the other two are registered Republicans. “We come from different walks of life, and that makes it work,” she explains. “The goal is to bring people together to at least agree to disagree or find common ground and compromise. If there’s a conversation going on that’s heated but they’re getting somewhere, I’m going to let that freedom of speech ring.”

But when a conversation descends into name-calling or foul language, the administrators will often put a stop to it. Each decision, she says, is determined by a majority vote.

And despite Stockwell’s commitment to diversity, E.A.S.T. is widely seen as having a predominantly right-leaning membership, which she attributes to the media and political organizations that reached out when the group began voicing concerns about the homeless shelter.

“In the beginning, it was the Republicans who brought in all the help,” remembers Stockwell, noting that the Buncombe County GOP reached out to her, and about a month after the group was established, Chad Nesbitt did a story on his SKYline News Facebook page that triggered an influx of new members. Whenever local media do a story about E.A.S.T., the group picks up about 100 more people, she reports.

“I am very center-leaning,” says Stockwell. “I fluctuate based on what I think is right or wrong, not based on party lines.” At the same time, however, she believes it’s “important to hear both sides, whether they win or not. I think everybody needs to have that opportunity.”

The illusion of influence?

But not everyone who’s active in such groups is convinced of their ability to affect the world beyond their own virtual borders. “Dialogue gives people an opportunity to say what they want to say: It doesn’t change people’s minds,” says Josephs, who also serves as an administrator for the Black Mountain Exchange.

And as an early group administrator who attended summits hosted by Facebook and also briefly worked for the company, Josephs knows better than most how much control the social media giant has over its groups.

First of all, she notes, Facebook’s algorithms screen posts before administrators and moderators even see them, which sometimes results in nonsensical bans such as labeling the phrase “stupid Americans” hate speech. “If you say, ‘I’m in my garden with my hoe,’ that post will be gone,” Josephs explains.

Accordingly, she notes, much of the blame for alleged censorship that’s directed at moderators and administrators of pages like Asheville Politics should rightly be assigned to Facebook. The company, says Josephs, doesn’t always let people know that its algorithms have blocked their posts, and it doesn’t share the content of those posts with administrators.

“It’s only when the members show us a screenshot and we see what was removed,” she says, that “we can explain to them how they can enter into the process of asking it to be reversed” by Facebook’s independent oversight board.

In Josephs’ view, it’s really Facebook that has all the power. “What kind of influence does [Asheville Politics] have outside of the group? A lot less than people want to think,” she asserts.

For his part, Lee wonders whether some of his own early optimism may have been misplaced. “We started with this idea that more education about the workings of local government was going to lead to more cooperative, better-informed decision-making,” he recalls. “When I hear about Asheville Politics now from random members of the public, I’m more likely to hear that there’s just a bunch of angry people and radicals.” Nonetheless, he remains proud of the site and its work, saying, “I still believe in the potential of groups like Asheville Politics to bring people together.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Oct. 21 to accurately reflect the online groups that Robyn Josephs is involved in. 

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Jason Kenney quits Alberta politics with critical letter on state of democracy



Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney stepped down as the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Calgary-Lougheed late Tuesday afternoon.

“Thank you to my constituents for the honour of representing them in Parliament and the Legislature over the past 25 years,” Kenney said in a tweet also containing a statement.

The resignation came two hours after the throne speech for the Fall session was read inside the legislature, which Kenney was not present for.

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Kenney said he is proud of the work done while he was the leader but with a new government in place under Premier Danielle Smith — who replaced him as leader of the UCP in October — and a provincial election coming in May 2023, now is the best time for him to step aside as MLA.

“This decision brings to an end over 25 years of elected service to Albertans and Canadians,” he said.

“I would like to thank especially the people of south Calgary for their support over nine elections to Parliament and the legislature, beginning in 1997. Thank you as well to the countless volunteers, staff members and public servants who have supported me throughout the past two and a half decades of public service.”

Kenney said in the future he hopes to continue contributing to democratic life but chose to close his resignation letter with a scathing reflection of the state of politics.

“Whatever our flaws or imperfections, Canada and I believe Alberta are in many ways the envy of the world. This is not an accident of history.”

Kenney went on to provide the following statement:

“We are the inheritors of great institutions built around abiding principles which were generated by a particular historical context. Our Westminster parliamentary democracy, part of our constitutional monarchy, is the guardian of a unique tradition of ordered liberty and the rule of law, all of which is centred on a belief in the inviolable dignity of the human person and an obligation to promote the common good. How these principles are applied to any particular issue is a matter of prudent judgment.

“But I am concerned that our democratic life is veering away from ordinary prudential debate towards a polarization that undermines our bedrock institution and principles.

“From the far left we see efforts to cancel our history, delegitimize our historically grounded institutions and customs and divide society dangerously along identity lines. And from the far right we see a vengeful anger and toxic cynicism which often seeks to tear things down, rather than build up and improve our imperfect institutions.”

“As I close 25 years of public service, I do so with gratitude for those who built this magnificent land of opportunity through their wisdom and sacrifice. And I’m hopeful that we will move past this time of polarization to renew our common life together in this amazing land of limitless opportunity.”

Kenney announced his intention to step down as the leader of the United Conservative Party on May after he received 51.4 percent support in his leadership review vote.

Earlier Tuesday, Smith was sworn in as the new member for Brooks-Medicine Hat after winning a byelection for the seat earlier this month.

It was her first time back on the floor of the legislature chamber since the spring of 2015.

At that time, Smith was with the Progressive Conservatives, having led a mass floor-crossing of her Wildrose Party months earlier. She failed to win a nomination for the PCs in 2015 and returned to journalism as a radio talk show host for six years.

Kenney remained a backbencher UCP legislature member until his resignation. It’s not yet known when a byelection will be held in Calgary-Lougheed.

Kenney joins a long list of Alberta conservative leaders sidelined following middling votes in leadership reviews.

Former Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein left after getting 55 percent of the vote in 2006. Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford received 77 percent in their reviews but stepped down from the top job when the party pushed back.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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Murray Mandryk: Today’s partisan politics abandons all common sense



Long abandoned is the principle in politics that politicians are there to represent everyone…even those that didn’t vote for you.

Politics: The art of abandoning all manner of common sense and principle in favour of convincing your own supporters what you’re doing is just and true while what your opponent promotes simply isn’t.

That’s probably cynical and unhelpful.

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Sadly, though, it’s neither as cynical nor as destructively divisive as much of what we see every day from politicians themselves whose only interest is in catering to their respective bases.

Long abandoned is the principle in politics that politicians are there to represent everyone…even those that didn’t vote for you.

Today’s politics is tribalism and, sadly, this cuts across party lines…although that observation is, evidently, now considered offensive to members themselves.

We’re not like that — they are.

Let us review, beginning with the latest from the federal Liberals. By definition, liberals (small l) are supposedly respectful and accepting of behaviour and opinions different from their own, open to new ideas and, promote individual rights, civil liberties, democracy and free enterprise.

Unless, of course, there are political points to be scored with your large urban base.

Consider the last-minute amendments to the latest federal gun-control bill that stands to criminalize millions of firearms now used by Canadian hunters.

The amendment would ban “a firearm that is a rifle or shotgun, that is capable of discharging centrefire ammunition in a semi-automatic manner and that is designed to accept a detachable cartridge magazine with a capacity greater than five cartridges of the type for which the firearm was originally designed.”

For those unfamiliar, that’s pretty much all hunting rifles and shotguns that aren’t pump, bolt or lever-action.

Essentially, this would ban all forms of semi-automatic firearms except for tube-style duck hunting shotguns — far in excess of the how Bill C-21 was pitched as a targeting of the sale of Canadian handguns (no mention of long guns was even in the initial draft bill).

This goes much further than the Liberals’ failed gun registry of 30 years ago, angering hunters, target shooters and of course, conservatives. It’s almost as if irritating the latter was the point.

The changes drew the expected angry response from Western Conservative politicians including Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe — which only seems to fortify the Liberal notion that somehow what they are doing is right.

But what happens when they are not?

The ongoing problem with illegal guns crossing the U.S. border, 3D printers capable of producing all manner of weaponry and light sentences for violent crimes would seem far bigger threats than a hunting rifle locked up for 364 days a year.

But in today’s tribal political world, it’s not about common-sense solutions. It’s about the virtues you are signalling to your base, which takes us to today’s conservatives defined by preserving traditions, institutions and following rules of law.

Or at least until it’s their ox being gored as we are seeing at the Emergencies Act inquiry. Then it becomes about justifying all behaviour and lawlessness … as long as it was aimed at the Liberal government.

It was bad enough that we saw in January elected politicians like Moe writing letters of support to Freedom Convoy organizers — some of whom were subsequently criminally charged.

But the same Conservative politicians who cavorted and emboldened protester organizers are now eagerly engaging in political revisionism. To hell with what the people of Ottawa endured. Senator Denise Batters claims she “personally never felt safer.”

And those criminally charged with obstruction? The plethora of other actions meritorious of criminal charges and the very real threats at border crossings? A figment of Liberal and/or RCMP imaginations?

Of course, that has now been superseded by the battiness of convoy protest lawyer Brendan Miller being sued for accusing someone of being al Liberal provocateur who waved a Nazi flag just to make the protesters look bad.

But this, too, is easily justifiable when you can view everything through a lens of extreme partisanship rather than common sense that’s seemingly no longer required in politics.

Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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The U.S. and Iran beef is what politics has become at the World Cup




United States head coach Gregg Berhalter and Tyler Adams attend a press conference on the eve of the group B World Cup soccer match between Iran and the United States in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 28.The Associated Press

Over the weekend, U.S. Soccer sent out social-media posts containing an altered Iranian flag. Two lines of Islamic script and the country’s emblem had been stripped from it. A spokesperson for the American team said the change had been made to show support for Iranian women.

Iran has had a torrid first week in Qatar. Its Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, devotes huge chunks of his near-daily remarks to alternately lashing the team’s critics and begging them to back off.

Here was a main chance to change the story, courtesy of their old enemy. The fight is so silly, you’re tempted to think the two teams – who play each other on Tuesday – cooked it up together.

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Iran saw the provocation from the U.S. and raised it. It demanded FIFA suspend the American team for 10 games – effectively eliminating it from the World Cup. FIFA ignored it.

On Sunday, in the midst of a U.S. news conference, an Iranian journalist scolded America’s media operation, telling it to “respect international media.”

“This is World Cup, not MLS Cup,” he said.

The presser was cut short.

By Monday, Iranian journalists were pressing American manager Gregg Berhalter to move the U.S. Fifth Fleet out of the Persian Gulf. Shockingly, Berhalter doesn’t have any juice with the Navy.

Berhalter explained that neither he nor his players knew anything about the flag flap, but still apologized for it. No one wanted to hear it. This is what happens when athletes become political advocates. Everyone ends up looking clueless.

FIFA has spent years trying to strip the World Cup of its political symbolism and replace it with a commodified, pop-culture, politics-lite. That would be the sort of politics that gooses viewership, but doesn’t upset anyone.

It hasn’t helped itself by placing the event in military autocracies (Argentina 1978), functional dictatorships (Russia 2018), and developing nations that can’t afford to host it (a few).

A high-water mark for political tensions created by soccer goings-on was the 1982 semi-final, France vs. Germany. The two nations didn’t like each other going in. They liked each other much less after watching their countrymen kick the tar out of each other for 120 minutes. At one point, the German goalkeeper delivered a flying knee to an onrushing French player, knocking out several teeth.

Afterward, the German – Harald Schumacher – was told about the missing teeth. “I’ll pay for the crowns,” Schumacher said, glibly.

That went over as well as you’d imagine. Tensions mounted to a postwar high. The Germans learned the French hadn’t really forgiven them, and the French figured out they were still piping hot over it.

The situation was only defused when the then German chancellor publicly apologized to his French counterpart. The incident – referred to as ‘The Tragedy of Seville,’ after the city in which the match was played – remains a potent touchstone in both countries.

That was back when politics in sports had guardrails. You only went so far, for fear that a shouting match might become a shooting match.

Those limits have come off in recent years. People feel perfectly entitled – compelled, even – to show up at events such as this and start delivering speeches and tossing around insults.

As usual, FIFA is mostly to blame. By inveigling teams to engage in soft advocacy, it has persuaded the human brands in its temporary employ to speak the sort of truth that makes sponsors comfortable. But once the complaints get anywhere near the money, FIFA becomes a stickler for rules as written.

So, ‘OneLove’ armbands? Out. ‘No Discrimination’ armbands? In.

What does ‘no discrimination’ mean? Who, exactly, are these people who are for discrimination? When’s that press conference, because I’d like to attend it.

‘No discrimination’ means less than nothing, because it pretends to be something. Proper protest is organic. It isn’t approved by the marketing department, then sent off to the printers to be colour-matched and sized for overnight delivery.

After FIFA nixed the armbands, Germany came up with its own stunt. During the prematch team photo ahead of its first game, German players put their hands over their mouths. Presumably, this means they can’t speak their minds. Who exactly this is a shot at – FIFA? The state of Qatar? The World Cup writ large? – wasn’t defined.

And yet, they can speak. They’ve got cameras on them every hour of the day. People are itching to tell their stories. The German players haven’t been prevented from speaking. They’ve opted not to speak because they fear sanction.

So what is it? You’re taking a principled stand, or you’re doing a photo op? You can’t have both.

Now you’ve got USA and Iran taking pops at each other for kicks, hoping a few callbacks to the bad old days will jazz up their current sports chances.

Is it now totally out there to say this stuff ought not be taken so lightly? You want to start an international slapping contest with a sovereign country? Maybe your foreign service should be the one doing that, rather than the guy who runs the Instagram account at U.S. Soccer.

If you’re the United States of America, maybe don’t do that at all. You’re in no moral position to lecture anyone else.

But stripped of actual menace, that’s what politics has become at the World Cup (as well as the Olympics). It’s gamesmanship. It’s theatre. It’s for funsies.

And it can be fun. Until one day, something silly that happens here leaks out into the real world, where everyone doesn’t slap hands and trade jerseys when the game ends.

You feel like protesting the injustice inherent in staging this World Cup in this place? Or how your opponents comport themselves? How about not coming?

Why not apply the same standards of total commitment to your protesting that you do to your play? Otherwise, make room for serious people willing to take actual risks.

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