Opinion piece by Susan Delacourt

Opinion: Naheed Nenshi has had his fill of hate

No surprise that he is taking a hiatus from the front lines of power, but also taking a break from the backwaters and haters of Twitter.

One of Canada’s most interesting politicians, he also became – by virtue of being a visible minority – one of our most visible. As mayor of Calgary, he attracted attention across the country and around the world.

To understand the story of Nenshi’s inspiring climb to power, and his depressing departure from public life a decade later, consider the parallel trajectory of Twitter’s rise and stall over the same period. What began as a symbiotic relationship between the media-savvy politician and the social media platform has long since soured, brimming with bitterness.

Once a Twitter icon for followers, Nenshi’s avatar became a target for tweeters.

Social media empowered his first mayoral campaign, but disempowered him all these years later. Twitter gave rise to an unknown academic who could push out his policy papers and capture public attention, but it also gave breathing room to little-known critics and faceless trolls who could push out their contempt and conspiracies in the public space.

Nenshi hinted strongly at his hesitation to run again when he appeared at a Ryerson Democracy Forum that I hosted last October about how Trumpism had coarsened Canada’s politics.

“I have to decide now whether I’m going to run for another term,” Nenshi told a surprised audience.

“What a lot of people are telling me is, ‘Why in the world do you do that to yourself in this political environment?’”

The problem is that “politics right now is broken and ugly and awful, and I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but – politics is merely a reflection of who we are as a people.”

We the Canadian people.

“Things have completely changed over the 10 years of public life that I’ve been in. The amount of racism, the amount of anger and vitriol that I am subjected to – on a daily basis is really unbelievable, and it has gotten so much worse.”

I’ve listened to students and aspiring politicians – people of all colours, but especially young women – talk about the impact of abuse and hostility in a public forum. I hadn’t expected the disembodied trolls to take such a toll on Nenshi, but the phantoms have left him fatigued.

My sympathy lies with the victims who are targeted incessantly. But my curiosity extends to the trolls, the people – for they are not all bots – so fixated on winning a fight and wounding their adversary that they are willing to lose any vestige of self control.

How does it happen? Like Nenshi, I’ve been active on Twitter for just over a decade and watched its early promise as a repository for democracy turn into a bear pit for snarling takedowns.

Politics has never been for the faint-hearted. But the merely adversarial has now become confrontational – and increasingly personal.

The problem with social media is that it is so anti-social. Twitter is all about having the last word, not spreading the word; inflaming, not informing; provoking, not persuading.

Trolling is about heckling, not engaging. It is built on put-downs and one-upmanship.

When is the last time you saw someone publicly change their mind on social media? Twitter acts as an enabler for a normally thoughtful doctor or teacher – or, yes, journalist – to tweet out their unfiltered and unhinged alter ego, revealing their inner voice (often without their name attached to it).

Those who remain anonymous, hiding behind invented avatars, give vent to vile ideas without having to answer for them. They drop the mask, writing things online that they’d never say in person.

Equally with emails, it is infinitely faster to dash off an electronic obscenity than in the past, when it required putting pen to paper, finding an envelope, buying a stamp and posting it – allowing time to reflect and reconsider.

In its infancy, social media had the potential to disseminate fresh ideas from new voices, notably that little-known professor in Calgary who long ago persuaded local voters to make him mayor. All these years later, it has become less a sounding board than a place to sound off, for better or for worse.

Live by social media, die by social media – that is the question for politicians such as Nenshi. Today we have his answer.

Martin Regg Cohn is a National Affairs writer.

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