The Alberta government is engaged in an aggressive social media campaign to defend its controversial health-care reforms and suppress dissent via its army of press secretaries and issues managers. Their conduct raises concerns regarding the appropriate use of social media by the government.
Tweets by politicians and their staff are often politically motivated or present information with a partisan spin. The public presumably knows to filter information from these accounts accordingly. Even then, politicians and their staff should be mindful that they serve all Albertans, not merely those who elected them.
By contrast, the official social media accounts of government institutions should provide the public with nonpartisan information. It is therefore concerning that the Alberta Health Twitter account has taken a decidedly political turn during this government’s tenure, particularly at a time when the public looks to it for important health information.
For example, the Alberta Health account recently boasted that the province has more doctors than ever, which is a politically charged statement. Health Minister Tyler Shandro and his staff have been engaged in protracted debates with citizens about the number of doctors leaving the province due to the toxic work environment created by the government. Alberta Health’s tweet supports the minister’s views and stakes out a position on this political controversy.
The Twitter accounts of both Alberta Health and Shandro referenced the same physician registration statistics but failed to acknowledge significant limits on this data. The number of registered doctors does not correspond to the number who are actively practicing. Because doctors register for an entire year, we will not know how many have left until the renewal period passes. Even then, some doctors who move will opt to remain licensed in Alberta.
Data on the number of doctors currently billing the government is similarly inconclusive. Because doctors are required to give patients 90 days’ notice before closing their practices, those who are leaving will still submit claims during this notice period. While it is expected that official government Twitter accounts will portray the policies of the government of the day in a favourable light, it is quite another matter for them to present data in a misleading manner as they have done with this issue.
Another component of the government’s social media strategy is to block critics on Twitter. For example, Shandro has blocked many doctors who have criticized what they see as his heavy-handed approach to health reform (see #BlockedByShandro). Given the government’s extensive use of Twitter to make announcements about the health-care system and COVID-19, it is essential that citizens have access to this information, particularly the health professionals who are directly affected.
“Elected officials must have thick skins and accept that criticism, however unsavoury, is integral to democratic debate.”
The minister’s extensive Twitter blocking also undermines democratic values such as transparency and accountability by hindering citizens’ access to information. This issue has been the subject of lawsuits in Canada and the U.S.
For example, citizens who were blocked by the mayor of Ottawa alleged that his conduct violated their Charter-protected right to freedom of expression. They argued that access to information is essential to meaningful expression on public matters and that the mayor’s Twitter account is a place for citizens to engage in public policy debates. The mayor ultimately agreed to mute rather than block the litigants, which would enable them to see his tweets without him seeing theirs. In similar cases, U.S. courts have found President Trump’s Twitter blocking unconstitutional. Elected officials must have thick skins and accept that criticism, however unsavoury, is integral to democratic debate.
Instead of engaging with citizens strictly on the substance of their critiques, the government’s press secretaries and issues managers frequently deploy ad hominem attacks (also see here, here and here). They also employ dubious tactics such as posting pictures of private citizens (perhaps to make them targets of harassment by government supporters?) and tagging their employers in tweets. Communications staff ought to interact civilly with the citizens who pay their salaries and limit their discourse to substantive matters. The freedom to criticize government is essential to a democratic society and should not be discouraged through intimidation by government employees.
If used properly, social media can enhance democracy by facilitating access to information and providing a platform for citizens to engage with elected officials. Unfortunately, the Alberta government is using social media in a manner that harms democracy by discouraging free speech, misleading citizens and limiting access to information.
Lorian Hardcastle is an associate professor in the faculty of law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.
Ubaka Ogbogu is an associate professor in the faculties of law and pharmacy & pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Alberta and a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellow. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent those of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
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