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Emotional Contagion and the 2019 Election

Who are the Prouds and who funds them?

Emotional Contagion and the 2019 Election

Perhaps the best moment of the October federal election may have gone unnoticed if you weren’t watching CBC’s coverage, hosted by the excellent Rosemary Barton. In an election filled with rancour, missteps, lies, SNC, (and yes, blackface), panellist Megan Leslie, a former Halifax NDP MP who was defeated in the 2015 federal election, reached out to Lisa Raitt, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Opposition who had just been defeated in her riding of Milton. You could tell that the two were close friends and colleagues despite the fact that they came from different political parties; one from the left and one from the right. Yet they were gushing with admiration for each other and Leslie was as complementary to Raitt as Raitt had been to Leslie four years earlier after Leslie’s defeat. It made me think that this was the gold standard of what political life should be. You may disagree with someone’s politics or policies, but that should not stand in the way of people being able to work together and be close friends despite the political divide. Unfortunately, virtually every other political actor fell far beneath that standard in the last federal election.

If the Lisa Raitt-Megan Leslie CBC “love in” was the high point, the low point was the propaganda generated and disseminated by third party actors such as BC Proud, Canada Proud, Ontario Proud and other “Proud” organizations who are not regulated by anyone. Are they grass roots organizations? Are they funded by the Manning Institute, or as some have suggested, the Republican Party in the US? Are bots somehow involved? Or are the Russians trying to destabilize our electoral system by surreptitiously co-opting these right-wing social media platforms and their followers as they did in the US election of 2016? I’d like to know more. Others would too.

The Prouds circulated and re-circulated anti-liberal “dog-whistle” Facebook memes that went viral among their followers. Interestingly, some of their followers and meme-spreaders only exist on Facebook, and don’t seem to exist on Google, Canada 411 or anywhere else in the real world (I’ve checked). These avatars have no “friends,” even though their profiles are public. Their profiles and photos consisted of nothing more than Anti-Trudeau memes. That doesn’t sound like a “grass roots” disenchanted voter from Red Deer who would normally have had a few photos of friends and family scattered amongst the vitriol. It sounds more like someone who doesn’t want to be discovered. So are they Russians? Bots? Americans? If not, why the secret avatars?

This matters because the Prouds and their followers (real, Russian, Robotic, Republican or otherwise) use a technique called “emotional contagion,” where a person or group influences the emotions or behaviour of others through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotional states and behavioural attitudes. (Think “gas on a fire.”) The Russians and Cambridge Analytica exploited “emotional contagion” on social media to help elect Donald Trump in 2016. Cambridge Analytica used it to influence the 2010 elections in Trinidad and Tobago.

This is the subject of an excellent documentary called “The Great Hack” on Netflix. Cambridge Analytica, working for politicians in the South Asian community in Trinidad and Tobago influenced that election by promoting ads and memes through a campaign called “Do So” that encouraged young blacks not to vote as “a sign of resistance against politics.” With a sizeable demographic of young black voters persuaded not to vote, the South Asian UNC won that election.

The Liberals had an awful year and in any other election, they should have lost. They have a lot to do to curtail western alienation. A pipeline would help. But since the election, the vitriol coming from the Prouds and their followers are filled with the rhetoric of western separation, making me a little suspicious that foreign actors are using emotional contagion techniques to inflame the rhetoric (now that Greenland is not for sale).

The Globe and the National Observer have examined the activities of the Prouds. We need a “Great Hack” style documentary that investigates them more thoroughly.

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