John Becker is angry.
The mayor of Pitt Meadows says he won’t put up with it anymore.
So if someone makes a nasty, defamatory or abusive comment on Facebook or below a news story or anywhere else in public, the lawyer-mayor says he’s going to take issue with it. He might run a correction on his own web page or maybe he’ll set up a blog. If all else fails, he may file a lawsuit against those who make outrageous claims against him, although that’s not something he’d want to do.
Becker spoke out on the issue this week in a letter to The News, supporting Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read following a threat that was made against her.
Read missed five weeks of city council in April and May, after Ridge Meadows RCMP alerted her about a threat made against her.
Becker said he also gets threats and accusations the old-school way, via telephone and e-mail. For instance, he recently received a scary voice mail at night, with the call display identifying the caller.
But social media, Facebook groups in particular, is the origin of most of the hate.
Maple Ridge Coun. Tyler Shymkiw said he’s talked to other councillors who’ve been in office for 20 years.
“They do say the job has changed dramatically just over the last two years with the rise of social media.”
Becker knows that politicians are supposed to have thicker skin than regular members of the public.
“However, the volume of it is much greater and the level of viciousness is much greater. To see this expanding into attacks on … my business. My children are attacked, my wife is attacked.
“It’s mind-numbing… these private Facebook groups, and there’s no such thing (as private), and they’re doing it with impunity because no one else has had the guts to call them out and make them accountable.”
He said that up until now, he’s listened to the advice of his public relations and administrative staff who’ve been telling him not to respond to attacks against him.
“Oh no, you don’t want to inflame the situation.”
But that approach isn’t helping. “It just emboldens them.
“Show me that it’s decreasing the level of viciousness.”
He’d rather not go the legal route and file a defamation suit, but he points out that when it comes to accusations against lawyers or accountants that question their professionalism, “the damages for that kind of allegation are very significant.”
While online abusers think they’re safe, the same rules against defamation apply online as they do in print. A statement made online, on Facebook, can lead to a lawsuit as easily as one made in print.
Becker said his letter from Wednesday’s News is getting some response and he’d like to continue the discussion with other mayors around Metro Vancouver.
“Is there a role for city money to be spent on defamation action, vis a vis elected officials? I think that would be an interesting conversation.
“I’m not going to sit by and I would encourage colleagues like Nicole Read, colleagues in Langley, up country, on the Island, don’t just roll over. Challenge your communications and PR people. What are you doing? How can you help this? And they don’t have an answer.”
He said female politicians have it worse because of chauvinism.
“If you’re a strong, male leader, you’re a strong male leader. If you’re a strong female leader, you’re a b…”