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PDSB apologizes for legal action against online critics – but what’s okay in the anonymous world of social media?

·10 min read

The Pointer's Social Media Monitor is a weekly look at how elected officials and other public civil servants are using their taxpayer-funded resources to shape digital communication aimed at constituents. We feature one public figure or theme each week.

A mask can be a powerful tool.

Superheroes and supervillains are make-believe. Online, they are the norm — and working out which is which can be difficult.

Last year, the Peel District School Board’s leadership was fighting for survival after years of perpetuating anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination. Right before it was taken over by the Ministry of Education, several senior figures began a legal action to unmask a number of anonymous Twitter accounts committed to dismantling anti-Black racism, using blistering posts critical of the board.

The action, known as a Norwich Order, asked Twitter to disclose the names, email addresses, phone numbers and even IP addresses associated with several accounts so the board could pursue their owners, individually.

The Notice of Application, which PDSB confirmed to The Pointer this week cost the taxpayer $153,718, resolved to “commence a proceeding against the users of the Twitter Accounts (and a PDSB employee, if necessary)” to stop the alleged leak of confidential information and alleged defamatory statements against former senior board employees.

Essentially, the same PDSB leaders facing widespread criticism for their poor handling of equity and inclusion in one of the country’s most diverse regions claimed critics running the accounts were trolls. In their eyes, the social media users were hiding behind masked profiles to sling insults, disinformation and unfounded allegations.

The heavy-handed use of public funds to go after private citizens simply trying to protect the public interest was a shock.

When PDSB’s trustees were sidelined and its director Peter Joshua was fired, the legal action was immediately ended by Education Minister Stephen Lecce and the matter seemed closed.

But last week, provincial supervisor Bruce Rodrigues issued an apology to those behind the Twitter accounts that had been targeted, describing the legal action by the former director and some of the other leadership as an act of discrimination.

“The initiating of this Application was discriminatory, anti-Black and a deliberate attempt to silence community members' public participation,” Rodrigues wrote. “The Peel District School Board extends a sincere apology to Kola Iluyomade as well as the holders of the following Twitter accounts: @peelblackyouth1; @WeRiseTogether1; @AdvocacyPeel; @MinistryPeel; @HomelsPeel; and @PeelBlackParent. The holders of the above Twitter accounts wish to remain anonymous, and the Peel District School Board respects their wishes.”

The Twitter accounts (most of their managers remain unknown almost a year later) offered an important dimension to the debate, the board acknowledged in its apology on Friday. In nine months, they went from disruptive trolls to whistleblowers and advocates, in the eyes of PDSB.

The situation begs the question: when is it necessary to remain anonymous online to protect the identity of a key stakeholder or someone concerned about retribution and when is it simply a way to avoid consequences?

“What’s happened with the internet is you have two competing legitimate claims: one is free speech, and the other is right to privacy,” Jeffrey Dvorkin, a senior fellow with Massey College, University of Toronto, whose book, Trusting the News in a Digital Age, will be published next week, told The Pointer.

“I can understand why people who were making these comments didn’t want to be identified because the internet can be a very nasty place and one person’s troll is another person’s free speech advocate. There needs to be, in my opinion, some sort of [regulatory policy] in which those two competing ideas of whistleblowing and the right to privacy can be somehow reconciled.”

Alex Battick, a Peel-based lawyer who was retained to represent the Twitter accounts in question, told The Pointer the apology was significant. “I think they’re letting people know you shouldn’t fear raising these legitimate issues about equity, diversity and inclusion,” he said. “It is an incredibly important, incredibly timely message to be made by the school board.”

In recent months, more anonymous Twitter accounts have appeared, criticizing PDSB’s new leadership and alleging a new culture of fear: @PeelCulture, started in 2021, and @CorruptionUnco1 in July 2020. They have been used to amplify concern with the new administration in a style similar to the Twitter accounts PDSB’s former leadership attempted to unmask.

“This account stands for justice and truth,” CorruptionUInco1 tweeted this week. “We will not stop. Be prepared for serious sharing of screen shots, letters, emails… ."

“This will always be anonymous,” the account promised in a separate message.

Kola Iluyomade, founder of Advocacy Peel and one of its social media managers, views these latest accounts as the work of resistant trolls, attempting to derail equity work that is now taking place at PDSB through an overhaul of discriminatory hiring practices and other policies that harmed students. The use of copycat anonymous accounts to counter the efforts of earlier anonymous accounts illustrates the complexity of accepting unidentified users in one case but not in another. The fact is, our digital world includes privacy and free speech safeguards that protect those some feel are heroes and others view as villains.

“My take on this is that we wrote the playbook and when we went all out to support and help defenceless children, it was based on facts,” Iluyomade told The Pointer. “We had the interactions with the board, we had documentation and we had information from students… we didn’t go off defamation, we didn’t go off innuendo or anything like that. We went off facts.”

Iluyomade also points to the fact Advocacy Peel petitioned the school board for a meeting, something he says the new accounts have not requested.

As the presidency of Donald Trump made abundantly obvious, social media can be used just as effectively by those allergic to the facts.

The school board is not the only institution that attracts unnamed critics in the Region of Peel: @SaugaCouncilWatch and @PtCreditVoter, for example, are two accounts that regularly comment on politics and government in Mississauga, with the latter an especially enthusiastic critic of the provincial government and local MPPs.

Many of these types of efforts offer little evidence or substantiated information and are simply run by trolls intent on spreading misinformation or hate. Often, they have a personal or political agenda or self-interest behind their dark use of social media.

But, the real dilemma is this: Who gets to decide what content is for the public good and what is not? Doesn’t this depend on whose interpretation of the “public good” matters?

For those with legitimate information or concerns to share, some of the responsibility for driving these users to the anonymous realm of our digital ecosystem lies with the traditional journalism industry. In bygone days, whistleblowers would take their allegations to a trusted contact within the fourth estate to help uncover corruption, wrongdoing or systemic discrimination.

Journalists can discuss the public interest value of citizen-initiated issues and information. Depending on verification, and other factors around the legitimacy of the source, decisions are made around how to report the news in the best interest of the public.

Economic disruption in the industry has rendered traditional newsrooms incapable of handling the same volume of these once routine types of citizen-journalist partnerships.

The internet has not only replaced the need, it has created an unmediated form of whistleblowing, especially in smaller markets where skilled journalists are few and far between.

Enter social media.

Online, behind unnamed accounts, the same concerned citizens or whistleblowers can share their information.

The benefits and pitfalls are difficult to balance. A deluge of constantly flowing information floods our feeds, but the fog of claims, accusations, allegations and so-called evidence is almost impossible to filter alongside the half-baked nonsense, conspiracy theories and avalanche of flat-out lies.

“In the digital environment, the ability of mainstream news organizations to devote time and resources to a specific story has been severely limited,” Dvorkin said. “The digital culture has hollowed out traditional journalism; there’s still some great journalism that’s being done by newspapers and broadcasters, but it’s a shadow of its former self.”

While some legitimate sources and concerned citizens have taken to Twitter or Facebook to shed light on their concerns, there is also a sea of bad actors. You just have to look at the replies to posts shared by celebrities or politicians to reveal the worst parts of the internet: hate, misinformation and a fury rarely dared face-to-face.

The angry, anonymous outrage of the internet often has the effect of limiting social media to those either paid to use it in the worst of ways, or others who are simply born haters.

It stops many, including public figures expected to take a stand, from engaging with criticism or debate on social media for the sake of their own mental health, turning it into a dark echo chamber instead of a welcoming town hall.

The social media giants have proved themselves laughably ill-equipped (or simply unwilling) to deal with the issues.

During the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook in particular was the focus of a massive spread of misinformation, while its leaders seemed like Alice in Wonderland, lost inside their own fantasy world.

Last week, several British soccer clubs began a short-term boycott of social media to protest racist abuse directed at their players. The social media platforms have been clueless.

In Brampton, fraudsters impersonated Mayor Patrick Brown and Councillor Rowena Santos to solicit funds from residents in January. The issue led to a questionable episode at City Hall, where staff, without the permission of council, and at the behest of the two members, retained a consultant to surveil social media use by fellow councillors, before they caught on and demanded more information and informed consent.

“I am nervous about a government regulatory framework, but I have a feeling that there is a need for industry and government to come together to decide how to handle this,” Dvorkin said. “It is a very serious problem because the anonymous nature of these comments [can be a] form of hate speech, in my opinion, and we have laws in this country against hate speech.”

At the local level, it's difficult for residents to differentiate a whistleblower from a troll. And, like Dvorkin said, distinguishing between the two is entirely based on one's perspective.

This is the age of masks in our pandemic world, but they have always loomed large in our digital one. With few rules, it's impossible to say who should get to hide behind one, and who, for their perceived behaviour, should be revealed.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter, today’s online dilemma played out at the height of puritanically paranoid New England.

A woman believed to be an evil adulterer was forced to wear a mark, so everyone knew of her wickedness. But it was Boston society and its misguided judgements that were really exposed.

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you.

Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer