A little more than two years ago, Sophie Geffros went to an event for young women in politics in Ottawa. There, she says, she met Tony Clement.
They didn’t speak much. There were no notable interactions that Geffros can recall. He was a veteran politician, a former cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper. Not long after she left, a notification popped up on her Instagram, she says, alerting her that Clement was a new follower. Geffros was 18.
She vacillates when describing her initial reactions: “weird but whatever,” because he was in his 50s and she was a teenager, but also “kind of flattered” because he was a really important political figure.
Then, Geffros says, it got weirder.
“I would wake up to a bunch of notifications that Tony Clement had liked my various posts,” she says.
Selfies, she remembers specifically, or photos from trips to the beach.
“I remember thinking, this isn’t something I would necessarily report someone over because no crime has been committed and no actual boundary has been crossed except for the implicit one, which is 55-year-old men don’t like the Instagram posts of teenage girls they don’t know.”
Geffros says she learned from friends that Clement had a habit of direct messaging some of the women he followed. Feeling strange, she blocked him and then didn’t give Clement much thought until this week when Clement himself broke the news that he had resigned from all his committee roles after admitting to sharing sexually explicit photos and a video with a woman whom he alleges then tried to extort him.
Clement did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. On Nov. 6, he released a statement saying he had shared sexually explicit images and a video with someone he thought was a consenting woman but who, in fact, tried to extort him. He acknowledged going “down a wrong path” and having “exercised very poor judgment.”
On Wednesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he had asked Clement to resign from the Conservative caucus amid the scandal which, Scheer said, “is not an isolated incident.” On Thursday, Clement wrote a letter to his Parry Sound-Muskoka constituents acknowledging “poor decisions” leading to “acts of infidelity.”
“During a period of personal difficulty and weakness I engaged in inappropriate exchanges that crossed lines that should never have been crossed,” he wrote.
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But the entire case — from the moment a Toronto woman tweeted that “every girl in Canada with an Instagram was wondering when this would finally happen” — has prompted a public conversation about an issue long relegated to whisper networks: the gray zone of creepiness on social media.
When do seemingly harmless likes and messages on social media from older, powerful men actually cross a line?
“It’s the power that’s the key point here,” says Shana MacDonald, assistant professor in communication arts at the University of Waterloo.
It’s also just plain “creepy,” says Paula Ethans, an articling student in Ottawa and gender equality advocate.
“The word creepy for women is actually used in a really specific context. We’re intimately engaging with creepiness on a regular basis.”
You learn to recognize it, Ethans says: the older man who clicks “follow: when you’re in your early 20s, the person who likes a series of weeks-old photos in succession, and the stranger who messages you at 1 a.m.
“Alarm bells go off.”
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It’s not easy to call someone out for sheer “creepiness.” Julie Lalonde, a women’s rights advocate and public educator, attributes that in large part to how people only seem to understand sexual violence and inappropriate behaviour in the context of what is and isn’t legal. A year after #MeToo prompted a wave of stories about sexual assault and harassment, Lalonde says now it’s time to address the fact that seemingly innocuous behaviour can have a deep impact on women — even if it’s not illegal.
Kim Fox says she never felt like she could tell anyone, besides her friends, about what they called Clement’s “weird online behaviour.” She had worked at CBC in the years before Jian Ghomeshi was publicly accused of sexual assault and workplace bullying, where hallway whispers were the norm. At the time, Fox says, she didn’t say anything about Ghomeshi.
“I didn’t want to rock the boat as a journalist,” Fox says, “You’re conditioned to not say anything.”
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Clement following her on Instagram three or four years ago didn’t strike Fox quite as strangely as it did Geffros. Fox was a Canadian journalist who had recently moved to the United States, and Clement was a politician.
But then, she says, she was inundated with these “giant, massive waves of likes.”
It went on for a few months before she blocked him, Fox says, “I thought he was creepy.”
It was her husband who realized Clement only liked photos where Fox was alone, never any landscapes or photos of her with her husband. She blocked him. This week, Fox says, she decided to speak publicly. She swore after Ghomeshi she wouldn’t stay silent again — even if it meant dealing with a barrage of Twitter mentions.
“They can feel offended all they want,” one person wrote to her, “putting someone publicly on blast for liking their pics and claiming victimhood status is a disgrace. Lordy they are criminalizing Internet etiquette. Wow, it is #metoo to like someone’s pictures, maybe tweets are next.”
Fox isn’t trying to criminalize Clement’s behaviour. Indeed, Lalonde says, “We absolutely have to work hard at separating the two pieces.”
People seem to be jumping at the stories of Clement’s online behaviour as proof of some sort that he deserved to be extorted. Lalonde rejects that.
“Extorting people for their nudes is always bad. Being creepy with women is always bad. Those two things can be true at the same time.”
Fox wants people to understand that if they’re making someone uncomfortable, whether online or in-person, they have to stop. She wants women to feel comfortable talking about behaviour that makes them uncomfortable — even if it’s not illegal.
Amusing, pathetic, and wildly inappropriate. That’s how Glennys Egan, 29, who works in the nonprofit sector in Ottawa, describes her Instagram interactions with Clement over the last two years. She’s cautious with how she explains their interactions, which started — as Geffros’ and Fox’s experiences did — with an odd but shrug-worthy Instagram follow.
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Within months, Egan says, Clement was frequently liking her Instagram posts. He liked almost all of her photos and would routinely send her direct messages in response to Instagram stories she’d post. Egan says there was no discernible pattern, just a steady stream of communication. Sometimes he responded with hearts, other times with Bitmojis — personalized emojis of himself — and sometimes they would go back and forth a few times but whenever Clement called her pretty or told her which bar he was out drinking at she would stop responding.
Once, Egan says, she posted a picture of an order of makeup she’d received with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “Am I pretty yet?” Clement, per screenshots shared with Global News, responded with a “lol yes.”
Egan is clear that even though their interactions felt weird and inappropriate, they were consensual. But it still didn’t feel right: “It’s not appropriate for Tony Clement to be telling me that I’m pretty over the internet.”
Any other person she didn’t know or hadn’t met yet in person would have been blocked for the kind of messages she consistently received from him, she says, but with Clement she was “cautious and curious.” He was a prominent politician.
The problem with the “they-are-criminalizing-the-internet-etiquette” crowd, MacDonald says, is that it is missing the power differential between Clement and those he made uncomfortable. For Clement to meet young women in a political setting and then follow them online, prolifically liking their selfies and beach shots, reduces them to a visual object.
“They’re diminished into a space of being evaluated on their appeal or their looks versus mentorship conversations and ‘great meeting you, here are ways in which we could talk further about your interests.’”
That, MacDonald says, is where the grey zone of online contact has consequences for young women entering politics.
In that moment after Clement followed her, when Geffros felt weird but flattered, she thought, “Oh, that’s really cool, he clearly remembered me.” His “liking” sprees made her scratch him off her list of people to network with, but it didn’t seem like something she could complain about.
“It’s too small — or at least I thought it was — until the last couple of days to have any impact on his career but it’s enough that it would have had a really significant impact on ours.”