Fozzie Bear, a founding member of the Muppets, wrote a message to the Ontario government last week opposing the proposal to replace the Lord’s Prayer in the Legislature with a religiously neutral one. Fozzie joined a reported 7,100 other Ontarians who have participated in the online public consultation.
Of course, Fozzie Bear doesn’t live in Ontario – nor is he a real person. He is, however, an example of the illegitimacy of the consultation on the Lord’s Prayer: anyone with access to the Internet can go to the government’s website, punch in their objections and a name and e-mail of their choosing and have their opinion publicized by Queen’s Park.
If this were just a matter of columnists like me posing as Fozzie Bear, sending nonsense comments to the government, it would be a simple nuisance. But some of the traffic on the government page – so much of it that the site temporarily crashed – is made up of a different breed of puppets: Christian activists.
Lifesitenews.com, catholicregister.org and other religious websites and blogs are linking to the Legislature’s consult page, urging readers to leave a pro-?prayer message and effectively skewing public opinion. And, as Fozzie Bear found out, there’s no limit to the number of messages one puppet is allowed to leave.
The disingenuous act of poll-jacking – manufacturing dissent to distort online opinion-gathering – was perhaps most successfully carried out in Saskatchewan in 2005, when an online poll was set up to measure support for that province’s Energy Accord. A single right-wing blogger hijacked the survey so thoroughly that the premier was forced to denounce the results on television.
But like our naive Ontario government, the press corps covering the prayer issue appears to be unaware of the problems of Internet polling, including unverified names and contact information. Virtually every media outlet in the province is describing the response as a “groundswell of opposition.”
If the all-party panel conducting this consultation actually bases its policy on this preposterous “groundswell,” it may just be the most effortless, simplistic lobby in Ontario history.
Joshua Errett is Online Editor for nowtoronto.com.