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Rise in threats to politicians an attempt 'to undermine democracy': Northern MP

Veteran New Democrat MP Charlie Angus is weighing in on the soaring number of threats to politicians that has Parliamentary security on high alert.

The Timmins-James Bay MP said public officials face toxic comments, hateful messages and death threats online. He's concerned the words could turn into violent action.

"The level of threat and toxic rage that's out there against public officials is so much that (Parliamentary security) are talking now about us needing security plans, security briefings, even to carry panic button," Angus said.

He's faced multiple death threats and has had to involve police and get restraining orders.

"My concern is for a lot of younger politicians, particularly women, who are facing a lot of really unacceptable levels of intimidation that's really trying to stop them from doing their work, which is serving the people."

Angus said he noticed a stark spike in animosity from some voters when Donald Trump became president of the United States.

He said people who believe wild conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns are increasingly comfortable not only sharing their opinions, but also threatening politicians they disagree with or believe are part of those conspiracies.

High number of 'toxic tweets' online

The Samara Centre for Democracy tracked the accounts of 300 incumbents and party leaders during the 2020 Canadian federal election, using AI to distinguish how many tweets were found to be toxic.

During the week of Sept. 12, just before election week, it tracked 495,297 tweets and found 18 per cent of them to be toxic, meaning they included insults, profanity, threats, identity attacks and sexually explicit content.

Of those toxic tweets about eight per cent contained threats, according to the centre's data.

Political science expert Wayne Petrozzi is professor emeritus in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Petrozzi said social media has enabled people with extreme views and opinions to find each other and feel more comfortable expressing their views. It also gives them a protective shield to threaten people online, while doing so in public could lead to prosecution.

The problem, Petrozzi said, is that it is almost impossible to determine which online threats could lead to violent action in the real world.

"Do they act? Yeah they do," said Petrozzi.

"We just had a convoy in Ottawa that locked up the city for a month. That started with chatter. It didn't end with chatter ... and there are plenty of dark spots within that internet where people of a like mind can get together and, relatively securely, have conversations of that sort."

Sorting out real threats

Petrozzi said that short of shutting down Internet access, governments aren't able to determine which online comments are real security threats.

Angus said that is exactly what makes it appalling to see threats thrown at public officials, instead of making their views known at the polls.

"This is a level of intimidation attempting to undermine democracy," Angus said.

"If you feel that you can threaten your politicians so that he won't show up or that she'll quit her job, that's an unacceptable level of interference in democracy."

CTV contacted the office of the Speaker House of Commons, which chairs and co-heads two internal agencies that manage security for MPs.

Its director of communications, Heather Bradley, said the federal government seldom talks about security matters. Bradley did say the agencies provide MPs with security briefings and equipment to keep them safe away from Parliament grounds.

She said no further information is disclosed to the public for security reasons.

A complicated problem

Angus would like to see action to tackle the level of disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate spreading online.

But Petrozzi said there's no easy solution. It may be attractive to believe educating the public about credible sources of information and how to identify which sources are spreading mistruths and lies would help.

But he said that may be a lost cause, since many who believe false information already distrust mainstream media and prefer to believe they have discovered the truth on conspiracy forums.

Petrozzi said that means the situation may worsen before it improves.

Upholding democratic values

But Petrozzi warns people can't simply hope for the problem to solve itself or assume that democracy as an institution will last on its own.

If people believe in democracy, he said, they need to reaffirm their belief in it and commit to upholding its values.

"I can go by dozens of homes ... with 'F-K Trudeau' signs on their bumper stickers," Petrozzi said, adding that many of the homes include families with young children.

"It doesn't matter that their five-year-old sees it," he said.

"And it's not because they want their children to swear. It's because they think that man is not deserving of even the most minimal respect. And when that's the way you begin to think about politicians, they have reason to believe that somebody might want to carry that a step further." Top Stories

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