Ontario Ombudsman and Twitter: Why cooler heads need to prevail

I truly believe that the “controversy” that has erupted between the Ontario Ombudsman and two professors in the Department of Political Science at Western University is merely a product of multiple misunderstandings, as well as ineffective communication on a medium that is being misused by many.

Let me start by affirming that I think what Andre Marin is doing with the office of the Ontario Ombudsman is truly revolutionary. One of the great frustrations of the public is a difficulty in airing grievances about their public services and officials. Marin’s use of Twitter has already given a voice to thousands in the province who would have not otherwise been heard.

Going back in the Twitter record, this controversy appears to have had its genesis in a Professor Andrew Sancton tweet in late September where he stated “”Investigations” of informal mtgs of municipal cllrs must stop. This is craziness with no legal justification or benefit.” He was referencing investigations by the OO aimed towards municipal councillors, and his belief that the number and character of these investigations were increasing unnecessarily. What followed was a civil academic argument where both Sancton and Marin made their points, and the discussion ended.

On November 26, 2014, Sancton spoke to an Ontario Legislative Committee looking at Bill 8 (the bill to expand the powers of the ombudsman), and argued that that power of the OO should not be extended with respect to open municipal meetings. Marin responded by blocking Sancton on Twitter, and all hell broke loose. Sancton responded by making a complaint to the Information & Privacy Commissioner about being blocked.

Here’s where the unfortunate series of miscommunications begins. Sancton, by his own admission, does not have tremendous experience with social media. He referred to Marin’s Twitter page as an “official website”, and believed that only Marin’s “tweets and retweets end up on his website”, where in fact any reply to his tweets would end up on his page as well. Sancton was obviously unaware that being blocked does not completely prevent someone from reading one’s Tweets (just log out of your account and search for that person), it only prevents the blocker from having to see the blocked’s Tweets and replies.

Marin unfortunately has to deal with a lot of “trolls” on his Twitter page. There are at least two individuals who respond to nearly every one of his posts with extremely vulgar language and personal attacks. Language that I would rather not repeat on this blog, but suffice it to say the words should never be uttered in public. This has understandably made Marin quite sensitive to dealing with any attacks on Twitter. What Marin has been accused of recently is being hypersensitive to any attacks, and to label any dissenting opinion as being a “troll”. I think there is some merit to this criticism, as I believe some honest critiques by intelligent individuals have been inappropriately dismissed as being abusive. But this brings me to the point I really want to make.

Twitter is not an effective medium for any rational debate. Marin’s critics are using Twitter to engage him on various legitimate policy issues. Sancton tweeted on December 4th “Can we debate public policy in this format? I hope so.”. The answer to this question is that issues as complex as closed door municipal meetings and the jurisdiction of an ombudsmen are not going to be resolved on Twitter. If anything, opinions on either side will become more entrenched through a “Twitter debate”. Names will likely be called, oversimplifications will be used, and a whole host of logical fallacies will be used to debate opposing opinions. But be sure, no resolution will ever come from debate on Twitter, as I have honestly never seen someone make a 180-degree turn on an opinion as a result of a discussion on the medium.

This fact is difficult for many to digest. Marin is a lawyer, as are many of his supporters and critics. Having rational debate and making cogent arguments are part of their lifeblood. And the instant communication that Twitter offers is too tempting to ignore for many. Get an instant opinion out there, and defend it. But unfortunately it provides no practical medium for quality argument. The sooner the world realizes this, the more harmonious our society will become.

So how can this situation improve moving forward? I would start by suggesting that any critic of Marin respond through an Op-Ed or their own personal blog, rather than engaging in a back-and-forth on Twitter. I have no problem with Marin restricting who can follow him on Twitter as a means of keeping things civil. Any member of the public has the ability to contact the OO through their phone line, and I trust that Marin will not allow criticisms of his office from the public to colour any future investigations regarding that individual or group.

Marin has been accused of making the office of the OO too political through his often-pointed public and online comments. I trust that as he continues to settle into his role that he will realize that personal attacks (eg. the Chicken Little comment in November, linking the current Western poly sci department with Rushton’s penis-measuring racial IQ theories) don’t further his cause, and that a more nuanced approach will go further. I truly believe that he does not make any of these comments out of any malice, but out of frustration for the abuse he receives on Twitter. In the end, the results of his thorough investigations will lead to recommendations, and those with the power to implement these need to be confident that his impartiality was never in doubt. That isn’t to say he can’t be opinionated, because his opinion is often invaluable, but he needs to be careful not to make premature declarations when avoidable.

I look forward to seeing what Marin will continue to achieve for the citizens of Ontario. His office is, and can continue to be, an indispensable asset for the province, and I hope these misunderstandings over the past few months will recede to being just a blip in the road to progress.

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One thought on “Ontario Ombudsman and Twitter: Why cooler heads need to prevail

  1. Andrew Sancton

    This is an exceptionally thoughtful analysis and I thank Dr. Elia for it. One quibble I have relates to Dr. Elia’s discussion of my understanding of Twitter. I was indeed initially enraged about the ombudsman’s temporarily blocking of me on Twitter, allegedly so that I could “cool down”. Within minutes a colleague explained that I could still access his tweets elsewhere. But I still object to the fact that a public official would in any way block me from his official government twitter account. Even the ombudsman (I think) acknowledges that I am not the kind of tweeter who hurls abuse at him. Some such tweets, as Dr. Elia points out, are truly objectionable and unacceptable and deserve to be blocked in any way possible.
    Another Twitter quibble relates to Dr. Elia’s claim that “replies” to the ombudsman’s tweets are available on his website. This appears not to be the case. I have “expanded” a great many of the tweets on his website and have found no replies. He retweets many observations favourable to his positions but few, if any, that are not.
    I agree with Dr. Elia that I was misguided to expect any kind of serious “debate” on Twitter. I began tweeting on this subject as it seemed to be the only way I could get any kind of response from the ombudsman. I have written a draft academic article (which Mr. Marin knows about and which is readily accessible to non- political scientists), relating to my disagreement with the ombudsman (see http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/politicalsciencepub/43 ). He, of course, is under no obligation to respond. But, if he is spending so much time on Twitter commenting on all kinds of public and private matters, why not use part of this time to reply in some kind of public forum to the substance of my argument?
    The ombudsman points out that none of his rulings on closed municipal council “meetings” have been challenged in a court of law. This is true. However, municipal lawyers I have spoken to about this have some doubts about whether his rulings on these matters (which cannot involve formal penalties but can help destroy political reputations) could be subject to any kind of legal action.
    This places the ombudsman in an extremely powerful position. He is apparently answerable to no one, even when (by his own admission) he goes beyond the common-sense meaning of statutes and existing Canadian judicial interpretation of such statutes. This is just one more reason why, in my view, he should be willing to respond to reasoned criticisms of his position and to legitimate questions relating to the implications of his position.
    Andrew Sancton (@asancton)

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