Archive | October, 2012

Trolls and the spaces created by trolling

24 Oct

I’m sure you’ve heard, by now, about Violentacrez.

He was doxxed by Gawker and in the process called one of the Internet’s most notorious trolls. Indeed, his vile contributions to racist, misogynist, violent, generally offensive, degrading and depraved subreddits should give him the right to own that label. This supertroll lost his job upon being doxxed and is, according to Fox News, now looking to work in the porn industry. It’ll be interesting to see if any porn outlets are interested in hiring a creepy older dude to do what they can just steal off of Reddit (or wherever else). He accidentally devalued his skill set.

His defense is that he viewed his work as Violentacrez as a game. Imagine, a game where the players are real, the effects are real and you get to hide behind your screen? It’s a pervert/creep/etc.’s dream.

I read the Gawker story with great interest. It’s well written and sheds light on a few corners of the internet that I have no reason to normally examine. I don’t need to see that creeps like Violentacrez exist by watching them peddle their vile garbage. As a woman, I’m acutely aware that men like Violentacrez exist.

Gawker has also faced criticism as they too are guilty for some of the crimes perpetuated by Violentacrez, though as far as I can tell they don’t host discussion boards dedicated to incest or dead women.

While much of the analysis has been dominated by the debate about outing Vilentacrez, or the strawman arguments around free speech, there hasn’t been enough from what I’ve seen about what troll culture makes possible online.

Over at Racialicious, an excellent post was re-posted about some of the questions that the Gawker article raises. In the article, T.F. Charlton cites Whitney Phillips’ response and says,

1) troll culture is built on the assumptions of white male privilege, 2) individual trolls like Violentacrez are supported by a “host culture” whose values they reflect–in VA’s case, he was wholeheartedly embraced by fellow Redditors and tolerated by the highest levels of Reddit staff, and 3) there’s not that much difference between VA’s racist and misogynist trolling and the sensationalism of “corporate media culture.”

Trolls and trolling concern me for many reasons, including everything that is mentioned in Charlton’s article. But I want to frame the effect that trolls have on discourse in another way: with such extreme elements from the Right raging online against those of us from any sphere of oppression, what does this do to normalize and shift debate? Charlton (and Phillips) offer a good examination the role of more mainstream media outlets who gobble up stories that include the word “Facebook” in the lede. The reach that trolls (and extreme trolls) have on shifting political discussion goes further than the mainstream media.

The extreme hatred spewed from the Right online (and I keep referring to “the Right” because I simply cannot think of anything equivalent that comes from the “left”) normalizes and entrenches extreme discourse. If you believe in the theory of the Overton window, where extreme opinions help to mix and push along less extreme positions to a more extreme place, the existence of trolls who demonize, terrorize, dehumanize and humiliate from a position of [relative] power is dumped into the ether of ideas and further normalizes what should be considered to be extreme.

Consider Amanda Todd’s suicide where it took feminist bloggers to ask the question, wait… what the hell? A girl kills herself as the result of a man harassing her with photos of her own body and it’s dubbed bullying? In an age where deeply troubling misogynistic harassment can be called the same thing as someone having their lunch stolen, we must acknowledge that the Internet’s metre stick has been moved further to the Right than many people are ready to admit.

Comments from the serial trolls like Ann Coulter and Ezra Levant no longer shock us. Rather, these two maintain their positions of power, keep their TV spots and occupy the time of meme generators who do up a quicky “I can’t believe Ann Coulter tweeted this” image. Indeed, the left creates better memes, but to what extent? What is a Binder Full of Women?

Have we actually reached a place where it takes message boards where the sole purpose to peruse them is to look at teenage girls photographed as dead? Has the Internet really broken us?

Extreme trolls are also dangerous because the “left” has no real equivalent. It’s just not possible to troll someone from the “left” in the same way that many of us get trolled regularly from the Right. What’s the equivalent to someone responding to something I post with “You’re a stupid cnut”?

Somehow, the left’s moral high ground, with its “facts,” “research” and occasional “you’re an asshole” renders it unable to respond directly to these attacks. Our moral high ground is a liability.

Of course, there exists a massive plain between the work of a Violentacrez and your “average” Right-wing troll. But it seems so clear that it’s part of the same messy side of the Internet that destroys both discourse and people. One enables and normalizes the other.

I’m not arguing in favour of fighting one brand of vile garbage with another. I’m just pointing out a deficit that exists. If the Internet is ever going to be a safe space for many of us, especially young women and girls with myriad other identities, we need to fight back in a way that is both constructive and effective.

And we have to call out these connections when we see them.


Lobbying, activism and non mutual exclusivity

22 Oct

The Canadian Federation of Students’ annual lobby week is happening right now in Ottawa and some unsophisticated trolling from a cyber activist (those two words cancel each other out, by the way) has motivated me to write this.

What’s the point of lobbying? Is lobbying activism? Can we achieve anything through lobbying?

When I worked at CFS my job was to be “the” lobbyist in Ontario. With the elected reps and other staff, I’d coordinate and attend meetings with MPs, MPPs city councilors and bureaucratic staff. All in, I’d spend probably about 20 per cent of my time on lobbying and related activities (like writing submissions) and 60 per cent organizing (the rest of my time was administrative/report writing). So, despite the fact that I was supposed to be lobbying the most, I spent way more time organizing than lobbying. While the CFS engages in lobbying, it hardly represents a majority of its campaigns work.

But why lobby at all? If the state bureaucracy and system of government is rotten, why waste our time engaging with it?

This is a really good question. While sitting in meetings with MPs hearing racist comments flow as if the man is talking about the weather, I’d often find myself wondering what the hell I was doing in that meeting and if it was worth my time.

First off, lobbying is important for young people to engage in. Young people need to have the veneer of power vanish before their eyes in a meeting with a politician so that they can more easily challenge and speak truth to power. I have seen many, many times, the scales fall from students’ eyes during their first meeting with a politician. We would always hold our breath until we reach the elevator, then we vent. “Are all politicians this scattered/bumbling/out of touch/dangerously unqualified/etc.?” I’ve been asked probably hundreds of times.

(I’m actually considering piling my experiences with lobbying politicians into a book. The things I’ve witnessed…).

Lobbying is also important because students’ enemies engage in it. In Ontario, where the common criticism of the CFS is that it’s too activist, Ontario students have to go through the painful process of meeting with politicians who have otherwise heard from “students” from “student organizations” (the quotes are a replacement for the word “scab”) and who, after being given a pat on the back from these “students,” actually believe that their policies are helping. So, unlike in Québec where CLASSE members could assume that at least the FEUQ and FECQ were saying that they oppose tuition fee hikes when they would meet with government, students in Ontario, or students who lobby federally can’t make the same assumption. Instead, you have the asinine opinion of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, the last powerhouse of the Liberal Party of Canada, that tuition fees aren’t a federal matter and so they actually refuse to address the question of tuition fees (never mind that tuition fees and student debt are kind of related, and that the Canada Student Loans Program gives out the majority of aid to Canadian students, or that federal transfer cuts fuel tuition fee increases.) So, when CFS reps walk into an MP’s office and notice a CASA coaster sitting on the coffee table (really), they know that they are not only presenting students’ priorities, but that they’re also trying to undo some of the work done by those students propped up by the Liberals or administrators.

On Friday night, I was asked whether or not I thought street demonstrations or lobbying won victories in Ontario.

Of course, the answer has to be that it’s in the streets where victories are won. But, it is possible to make policy changes through lobbying too. This shouldn’t be ignored. While the real fight is in the streets, making changes that allow for international students to work off campus (an important victory through lobbying, for example) is really important for the students it affects. This is my third reason for why lobbying is important. While the ultimate goal for the CFS and many student activists is free higher education, some people do have to engage in the painful work of fighting for minor policy changes. And, while rallying for more Ontario Graduate Scholarship funding is what most graduate students dream about (in between all that writing they have to do to win the funding, then actually carrying out the research), lobbying does play a role in making changes like these. Funding to OGS was increased by 50 per cent in 2010 thanks solely to lobbying and solely to the lobby work of the CFS.

The existence of well-resourced, highly-controlled or front organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, the College Student Alliance or CASA makes lobbying a necessity for the CFS.

The good news is that not everyone has to do it.

Some of us, me included, have a special talent for talking to people who we fundamentally disagree with. It’s not for everyone. But for the few on the left who can stomach this life, they/we shouldn’t be made into the targets of other progressives’ crossbows.

So, if you’re the kind of dude (sorry dudes but it’s SO OFTEN DUDES!!) who likes to rail against Ontario students for not doing enough because they haven’t landed 300,000 people in the streets of Toronto demanding free education, I must insist you troll someone else. Start with someone actually *with* power. There absolutely are problems within the Ontario student movement and the national student movement, but those problems are not “Lobby Week.” They are more fundamental and are the result of a failure of generations of activists to get their shit together and actually build something that could grow into a broader progressive movement. Unfortunately, the CFS is left to re-create itself year over year through new and young activists, while a broader social movement structure, ready to absorb aging student activists, simply doesn’t exist.

It’s not the fault of the 18-year-old who just got elected to council because she believes in free education, and when you make her the target, it’s just because, deep down, you know you’ve failed to build anything better than what she’s found herself involved in.

CEP-CAW New Union Project

15 Oct

From Sunday until Wednesday, I’m at the Communications, Energy, Paperworkers convention in Québec City.

I’ve been tweeting a lot from the convention for Rabble. Normally, my blogs here are posted first, then at Rabble. But, for convention news, I’m doing this in reverse.

So, for the limited number of people who read my blog check here before they check Rabble, here the posts the first two days of the convention:

Day 1

Day 2

The focus of the convention has been on a resolution to merge with the Canadian Auto Workers. The vote happened this morning, and is historic. Both of my articles ask what this decision will mean for CEP and CAW, and the broader labour and progressive movements in general.


12 Oct

I’ve been traveling a lot this past week, from Toronto to Georgetown to Ottawa.

Several times, I’ve been asked about what I think about the newest lamb being lead to slaughter by the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau.

Everything I’ve said can be better summed up by this gif.


The Province of Northern Ontario

5 Oct

George Orwell warned us. Somehow he knew that the future would be marked by the use of words that mean one thing but that mean another.

In many ways, it should have been inconceivable (I don’t think it means what you think it means).

I’m thinking of this because I came across the use of one of these doublespeak words while looking up an article for this post.


Here’s a definition I copied and pasted. With my French classes making me comb through dictionaries 68 times a day, I don’t feel like transcribing what my Canadian Oxford Dictionary says. But, you’ll get the point.


  1. Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
  2. (esp. of development, exploitation, or agriculture) Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources

The least popular Liberal in Northern Ontario, Rick Bartolucci used the word “sustainable” to justify the divestment in the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, according to the North Bay Nugget.

In the release, Northern Development Minister Rick Bartolucci says the divestment of the ONTC is necessary to promote sustainable transportation and telecommunications services in the North – now and in the future.

“This thorough and competitive sales process will ensure the buyer selected for Ontera is best able to meet provincial priorities to deliver telecommunications services, stimulate the economy, sustain jobs and provide value for taxpayers,” he said.

You got that?

Turning over the telecommunications infrastructure and service of Northern Ontario to a private corporation will ensure the sustainability of phone service in the North. Divesting in rail and bus service will ensure the sustainability of transportation in the North.

I’ll repeat: removing the public accountability inherent in these organizations (through, you know, democracy), Northerners will be better served by Rogers or Coach Canada or…you know, the likely replacement in the case of most transportation services….nothing. Jobs will be lost. Workers will be paid less. Services will suffer.

It’s easy to ignore that companies like Greyhound nearly cancelled routes in Northwestern Ontario because they’re not profitable enough (though a public pressure campaign convinced the company to keep some services). Forget the fact that the ONTC exists because Northern Ontario is a large place and the normal rules of capitalism haven’t really convinced politicians to create transportation systems that actually help people (rather than the mines). Let’s pretend to not remember the vast network of quasi-public (more public than private anyway) system of transportation that moves people throughout the GTA called GO Transit that also costs a lot of money to operate.

These things are forgettable for two reasons.

The first is that for most people in Southern Ontario, Northern Ontario starts at Orillia. And when the tip of the iceberg is mistaken for the entire thing, bad decisions will be made.

The second is that for the Liberal Party, they can mail a bag of turds to most Northerners and it will not likely change what people think about their party. The Liberal supporters will blame it on the kids down the street. The vast remaining majority will further despise the party.

So, attacking the telecommunications network Ontera and killing the Northlander are good political decisions. They won’t likely hurt the Liberals.

(Though, as the party with arguably the most support in the North, the NDP made a huge political and moral mistake by not including support for the ONTC in their budget negotiations with the Liberals.)

A few weeks ago, I encouraged people to not fear discussions about Québec independence. In that same vein, I think that it’s clear: Northern Ontario needs to become its own province. Not a country, yet, but at least a province.

For many people in positions of power, the North, especially with the Liberal’s drooly romance with the Ring of Fire, seems to be nothing more than a bunch of vacant land with lots of wickedly expensive crap under the soil. For industries who will  profit from the activities in the North, infrastructure, telecommunications and quality of life of Northerners is only important insofar as it encourages and enables their profits to grow. This colonial relationship continues to drive communities into poverty and perverts local leadership to support programs that aren’t what their communities want.

Bay street doesn’t care about Sault Ste. Marie, Hearst or Geraldton. Neither does Queen’s Park. And, together, such an attitude leads to a decision like the divestment of the ONTC.

Imagine the possibilities inherent in the creation of a new province: The chance to build a transportation infrastructure that connects communities with rail and bus lines that can bring students home from Lakehead University or Northern College. Imagine starting a province where people come together to create what they want, rather than inheriting a series of messes created by the South? Imagine being able to make decisions without waiting for permission from the faraway land of Toronto.

Imagine what Northern Ontario could look like if the people in the North were the decision-makers? Imagine the possibilities for First Nations communities, many of who struggle for self-determination and some of who have successfully fought against mining or logging companies looking to profit off their “resources.”

To me, that would lead to something sustainable. That would create jobs and infrastructure that actually works for Northerners.

All communities in Canada are struggling with another form of doublespeak: where their “democracies” are less democratic and more a tyranny of the minority. In Northern Ontario, it’s clear that the current arrangement in the province does not work in the best interests of the people there and something has to change.

If Northern Ontario can’t get any respect from the South as an appendage then its time to create a new entity that could form a relationship with Toronto or Winnipeg (or Chicago) on it’s own terms.

Enough of having to beg from the scraps left over from the Greater Toronto Area.