Viral content has replaced the attack ad as the most potent weapon capable of swinging political opinion in Canada. And it’s not just bots promoting fake #TrudeauMustGo hashtags on Twitter doing the damage.
The digital logic of social media allows for inventive ways to get noticed, and demands a particular set of skills that third-party groups are wielding with notable success.
The Post Millennial is the latest to join a network of online organizations with clear ties to the Conservative Party of Canada.
In June, an investigative report by CBC revealed that many of the writers and staff employed by the website, which describes itself as “centre-right” and non-partisan, have campaigned and worked for the party.
Jeff Ballingall, The Post Millennial’s chief marketing officer, was employed as a video specialist for the Conservative caucus under Stephen Harper, and served as a communications manager for Jim Prentice, the former Harper cabinet minister and Alberta premier. Ballingall also did a two-year stint at Sun Media, part of the Postmedia chain of newspapers – the largest in the country – that owns the National Post.
But Ballingall is best known these days for establishing Ontario Proud, the political advocacy group that received nearly half a million dollars in corporate donations and played a major role in a vicious campaign to unseat former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne in 2018. Ontario Proud’s Facebook content was viewed 67 million times in the run up to the vote.
While The Post Millennial does a better job of what the CBC describes as “blurring the line between journalism and conservative ‘pamphleteering,’” its aim is clear – to deploy a disruptive digital strategy to install Andrew Scheer as the country’s next prime minister.
The Post Millennial website runs national and regional news (a good chunk of it rewrites of stories from other sources), but the site focuses primarily on opinion columns penned by prominent conservative social media voices. Among them: Spencer Fernando, an Election Fellow at the right-wing National Citizens Coalition (the same folks who started a Trudeau Must Go petition earlier this year) and Barbara Kay, the long-time National Post columnist.
The site has also published submissions by Lindsay Shepherd, the Jordan Peterson disciple who was recently banned from Twitter, and John Carpay, the Alberta lawyer who infamously compared Pride flags to swastikas.
Many of its op-eds are deliberately provocative, railing against “identity politics,” “foreign-funded environmentalists” and “far-left Antifa terrorists,” all favourite targets in conservative discourse. Some recent headlines include “Chrystia Freeland has been a total failure” and “Sorry Twitter activists, most people just aren’t racist anymore.”
Building on the success of Ontario Proud, a closer look at The Post Millennial’s social media numbers paints a staggering picture of the online infiltration of far-right ideas in Canada.
According to BuzzSumo, a content marketing and research tool, in the past month alone, its website has tallied more than 700,000 “shares” or “likes.” Since July 2018, that number stands at 7.4 million. By comparison, the Globe and Mail, Canada’s most-read daily newspaper, had 14 million total engagements in the last year, barely double the figure.
Similarly, left-leaning quasi-partisan advocacy sites like PressProgress (an outgrowth of the Broadbent Institute) and 99North have garnered just 140,000 and 94,000 likes, respectively, over the last two years.
Outside groups aiming to influence elections through peripheral campaigns and other get-out-the-vote efforts are not new. Yet what The Post Millennial and its affiliated Proud groups are achieving is a greater level of mainstream legitimacy as news organizations. One of The Post Millennial’s reporters applied to become a member of the Parliamentary press gallery late last year.
The very idea that The Post Millennial mobilizes online support by openly flouting traditional journalistic standards is precisely the point. It drives the online narrative with content that resonates in particular with millennials who will make up the largest group of eligible voters in the October election.
Interviewed last year by Maclean’s, Ballingall commented on the success organizations like Ontario Proud have had in disrupting the traditional parameters of partisan advocacy. “It showcases that a lot of the old media is dying,” he offered. “If you’re smart and you understand digital media… you can reach millions of people.”
The implications for our democracy are another matter altogether.
Harrison Samphir is an editor and writer based in Ottawa.