Two of three politicians – including a sitting White Rock councillor – who confirmed they have commented on issues and people anonymously online at first denied participating in the practice.
In initial conversations with Peace Arch News this week, both Coun. Helen Fathers and council hopeful Cliff Annable said they believed it’s better if it’s clear where any comments they post at www.peacearchnews.com are coming from.
“If I’m responding to a comment, I want people to know it’s me,” Fathers said Wednesday. “I suppose everybody has the right to be anonymous, but it’s hard to actually solve issues and really talk about issues if you don’t really know who the person is.”
“If you’re gonna make a comment, put your name to it,” Annable said Tuesday, noting attribution is especially important on negative remarks.
PAN raised the issue this week after noticing links between anonymous comments and some of the city’s candidates for council in the Nov. 19 civic election, with some of the comments quite petty.
The issue of politicians making comments under pseudonyms became a hot one in White Rock after the 2008 civic election.
Veteran councillor James Coleridge was forced to vacate the seat he won in that election less than a year later, after a B.C. Supreme Court judge found he had lied to taxpayers when he said he did not know the source of a pre-election email terming opponents a “real estate slate.”
Coleridge – first elected in 1983 – didn’t come clean about where the email came from or who wrote it, even after being confronted with evidence that linked it to his computer, until the court case.
One of the recent handles – “presenting2008” – links to Fathers, a first-term councillor; another – “charleymike” links to Annable, who has served as a councillor previously in White Rock.
Council candidate Larry Robinson confirmed he uses WRAnon, but said he has no plans to post during the election or if he is successful in his bid.
While Annable was quick to confirm in a followup call that he had commented as “charleymike,” Fathers was less forthcoming that she commented as “presenting2008.”
When first asked about anonymous commenting, Fathers denied making any such posts. Told that online records link “presenting2008” to her computers (email and IP addresses were both used by Fathers), she maintained she was not connected to the username.
“That’s not me,” she said. “It might be somebody else here. It’s certainly not me.”
Asked if she had ever logged on under another name, Fathers again denied she had. She went on to describe the practice of anonymous commenting as everyone’s right.
“Every person that logs on anonymously has the right to do that. I’m just saying that I logged on as ‘helenfathers,’” she said, referring to a handle that appeared recently in regards to comments on street lighting. “I don’t think anybody’s doing anything wrong by logging on anonymously. There’s no law that says you can’t log on anonymously.”
Pressed, Fathers said comments posted by “presenting2008” – which include one defending Coleridge with “Good Councillor made a bad judgement call!!!” and another that casts disparaging remarks against Coun. Al Campbell – may have been made by her husband, Rob.
In a followup call moments later, Fathers conceded both she and her husband posted comments anonymously. She said she didn’t admit to it initially because both she and her husband had done it. She later said her brother – who was staying at her home for a time – may have commented under the moniker.
Fathers said she could not remember which of the comments were solely hers, made by her brother or posted jointly by her and her husband.
“When you live in the same house as people, family members often share the same views.”
Fathers noted she has not used the handle in so long that she has forgotten the password to log on, and she does not plan to post further comments anonymously.
PAN records show the most recent post from “presenting2008” was made April 15.
Annable confirmed Tuesday he posted as “charleymike” on Sept. 23; he asked whether another commenter was the spouse of a former councillor – whom he described in the comment as “that git from Glasgow.”
Annable has since posted as himself, congratulating retiring Mayor Catherine Ferguson.
Annable said two comments posted by “charleymike” – one on Oct. 15 promoting Annable’s reputation, and another on Oct. 6 casting disparaging remarks against Coleridge (the latter of which was removed for legal reasons) – were not made by him.
Annable said he discovered the posts after an initial interview Tuesday, and knows who made them. He described the individual as “a person that does some work for me” but would not disclose the identity.
Annable said he does not think it’s “right or proper” that the comments were made using his computer and account, and that the person will “most definitely not” be making further comments from his computer.
He, too, will not be posting anonymously, Annable said.
“You can’t change the past, all I can do is deal with the future,” he said.
Robinson said that as far as he’s concerned, the issue is black-and-white: there’s no place for online comments – anonymous or otherwise – if you’re running for office.
Robinson said he suspended all of his online remarks as of 4 p.m. Oct. 14, the deadline for filing nomination papers.
“Up until that point, I was a private citizen. After that, I’m running,” he said. “Normally, who cares, but now, we’re in an election campaign and you really have to watch what you do, what you put out there – especially with what’s happened in White Rock.”
Robinson, who said he last commented anonymously on Oct. 11, said much was learned from Coleridge’s 2008 decision.
Mark Wexler, an ethics expert at Simon Fraser University, said deceptive or missing identities in online commenting is not uncommon. The practice is sometimes referred to as “gaming” or “astroturfing,” and certainly raises red flags in regards to credibility, he said.
“There’s nothing positive to say about it,” he said.
However, blame does not solely rest on those making the comments, Wexler said, noting websites like www.peacearchnews.com and others have to accept some of the responsibility that comes with allowing anonymous comments.
“The problem, really, has to do with two sorts, if one wants to allocate blame: the game player, for gaming the system, and the system keeper, for allowing a system which allows gaming – and could easily prevent it,” he said.
“It’s sort of like poker; if you let people bluff, they will.”
At the same time, “nobody should game the system if they want to claim to be honest,” Wexler said.