OTTAWA – As thousands of people hit the streets in this winter’s Idle No More protests across the country, bureaucrats in Ottawa were watching their tweets and status updates to decipher how the grassroots movement was evolving.
“Organized and promoted through social media, Idle No More has been able to do something that other movements in the past have not been able to do or manage to sustain,” wrote a public servant at Aboriginal Affairs in a report. “It has people leaving their homes to participate.”
Idle No More started online as a protest against the Conservative government’s omnibus budget bill, but it morphed into a rallying call for demonstrations denouncing policies, condemning the state of the relationship between First Nations and the government, and supporting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s call to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston.
Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act show officials at Aboriginal Affairs were monitoring the Twitter hashtag #IdleNoMore to see what people were saying and doing.
A note refers to past “chatter” on social media about aboriginal issues, but nothing on the scale of Idle No More in terms of “activity and rhetoric.”
“People are very passionate about the topic, and eager to get involved or participate. Within their tweets and Facebook messages they are including links containing more information about what they are protesting, and sharing video and pictures from rallies all across the world.”
Social media expert Greg Elmer said many people were skeptical about the consequences of social media, but Idle No More showed how it could be used to mobilize political opposition.
“Politicians start to notice and start to worry when people show up at their constituency offices and that started to happen,” said Elmer, who is the Bell Globemedia Research Chair at Ryerson University.
“This particular government and governments around the world are fearful in many ways, not just of not being able to control messages, but they are fearful of the very quick, the very efficient use of social media in raising serious political concerns and activating populations,” he said.
Social media helped Idle No More organizers and sympathizers meet up for round dances, flash mobs, protests and demonstrations across the country. It also helped departmental officials track the activities.
Documents show bureaucrats included social media monitoring in reports to top officials at the department, noting Idle No More was trending on Twitter in Canada over several weeks in December. Included in media monitoring reports were reams of tweets, like:
“Bundle up for #Idlenomore in Winnipeg!! It’ll be cold but worth it!! To show the world we’re united, Canada. AMC will be there.”
“Nothing in the news today about #IdleNoMore, it’s like living in parallel worlds that don’t touch. Hopefully today will break that barrier!”
“This will be a long year for the Canadian government” #toronto #idlenomore”
While the monitoring could provide the government with insight into Canadians’ thoughts and opinions, Elmer likens it to eavesdropping on a meeting instead of attending it.
“It is not a dialogue. It’s not a conversation. It’s not really actively listening or engaging in a process where one is genuinely trying to understand the other side,” he said. “Whether or not that feeds into policy changes that is still really the question.”
But one of the movement’s most outspoken advocates, Derek Nepinak, welcomed the monitoring.
“If everybody’s left in the dark, and everybody’s left to wonder what’s going on, often times you very quickly move to a place where nobody trusts each other anymore, and that’s not a place that we need to be,” said the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
Aboriginal Affairs anticipated questions about “spying” and “surveillance” during the course of Idle No More with documents advising the department respond by saying information gathering for the purpose of decision-making and policy development is routine.
“Like all federal departments AANDC routinely assesses the public environment for events and trends that could inform policy decisions or impact our programs and services,” read a media line included in the document.
Analysis dated from Dec. 16, 2012 to Dec. 23, 2012 tracked the number of tweets which grew from 6,333 and 1,751 sources to a peak of 32,128 on Dec. 21 on the Idle No More national day of action.
The officials considered the vast majority of tweets to be supportive of Idle No More and determined the issue was gender neutral, with males and females tweeting in roughly the same proportion.
The analysis also noted that hashtags often used in conjuction with #IdleNoMore were #cdnpoli, #PMHarper and #rounddancerevolution.
Primary influencers identified by the department included First Nations lawyer Pam Palmater, Liberal leadership contender Justin Trudeau, environmentalist David Suzuki and CBC personality George Stroumboulopoulos.
With a file from Laura Stone.