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Federal Politics

How Poilievre Is Reinventing Right-Wing Politicking

His target: millions of Canadians who inhabit the murkier realms of the internet.

Geoff Dembicki 21 Mar

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.

In late February, Pierre Poilievre shared a video about the Ukraine crisis to his more than 211,000 followers on YouTube. It had been just days since Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops across the border, and over a montage of video clips appearing to be from the invasion, the Tory MP attempted to blame what was happening on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate change policies, which he contrasted with his own newly announced campaign to become the Conservative party’s next leader.

“Every time Trudeau kills a Canadian energy project, the dirty dictators like Venezuela’s Maduro or Russia’s Putin do a victory dance,” Poilievre said in the video, which has now been viewed more than 132,000 times. Elect me, Poilievre promised to his 511,000 followers on Facebook, where he reposted the video, and it would be Canadian oil and gas producers doing the dancing. “As prime minister I will reject Trudeau’s anti-energy laws,” he said.

Of course, Putin’s decision to invade Russia’s neighbour had nothing to do with the oilsands or pipelines. But Poilievre seized his chance, using the winds of war to bear aloft his domestic political message.

The next day, an op-ed by Poilievre containing these same talking points appeared in the Post Millennial, a Montreal-based site that describes itself as “one of the largest conservative news outlets in the world,” and whose editor-at-large Andy Ngo has been called a “right-wing troll” by Rolling Stone.

Poilievre’s op-ed, which was entitled “Canadian natural gas is the solution to Europe’s Russian energy crisis,” was that day reposted on Canada Proud, a Conservative party-linked Facebook group that has over 394,000 followers. That page reached potentially millions of people earlier this year with posts cheering on the anti-vaccine convoy in Ottawa, Facebook ad data suggests, despite evidence linking the convoy’s leaders to hate groups.

Two days later, True North, a conservative media outlet founded by former Toronto Sun columnist Candice Malcolm, which has deemed the Trudeau government “tyrannical” and accused CBC of spreading “fake news,” reported admiringly on Poilievre’s plan to “scrap” Canada’s carbon tax if he is ever elected prime minister. That piece was shared on Facebook to True North’s 185,000 followers and was echoed by similarly appreciative posts about Poilievre’s opposition to climate regulations on the pages Elect Conservatives (85,000 followers) and Oil Sands Strong (155,000 followers).

As Poilievre attains frontrunner status in the Conservative leadership race, Canadian media outlets have focused on his relative youth, his attack-dog qualities, his fiscal conservatism, his interest in cryptocurrency and whether his populist approach — Poilievre took selfies with convoy members in Ottawa and called them “bright, joyful and peaceful Canadians” — will help or harm his campaign.

But these accounts have overlooked a key reason for Poilievre’s recent surge.

Poilievre is skilled at creating personally branded internet content, which is then pushed out to millions of Canadians through a tightly-linked network of social media pages and online personalities, often bypassing traditional media outlets entirely. These are techniques commonly used by Instagram or YouTube stars. Poilievre appears to be adapting them to right-wing politics.

“He’s definitely got an influencer kind of vibe,” Ben Woodfinden, a conservative political commentator based in Ottawa who contributes to outlets like the Hub and National Post, told The Tyee. “In this new media environment, whatever you want to call it, that we find ourselves in… I suspect he’s not too interested in having approving op-eds in the Globe and Mail.”

Poilievre didn’t respond to an interview request from The Tyee.

If Poilievre becomes Conservative leader, expect him to transform how politics are retailed in Canada. He will have shown the way to win is by tapping into an alternative online ecosystem whose most prominent players flood people’s feeds with posts questioning COVID restrictions, calling the mainstream media corrupt, demanding the immediate resignation of Trudeau and asking the government to do everything possible to accelerate the production of climate-warming oil and gas.

“There is a huge amount of potential support that can come from this network if they decide to get behind you,” Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioural scientist and freelance journalist who’s written extensively about online disinformation, told The Tyee. Poilievre’s tactics might be effective, she argued, but the political consequences are chilling, because he is changing what is fair game for discourse by mainstream politicians. The “Overton window” is a name for what is reasonable to publically discuss.

“Any time an extreme idea gets brought into the mainstream, you’re kind of shifting the whole Overton window, so that if extreme becomes mainstream, then even more extreme ideas get brought in,” said Orr Bueno.

851px version of PoilievreTV.JPG
Political projector: A career politician since the age of 22, Poilievre, now 42, carefully crafts his media persona by mixing demonizing language (Trudeau’s supposed ‘vaccine vendetta,’) with folksy presentations of himself as man of the people. Photo by Justin Tang, the Canadian Press.

Poilievre has been testing methods of self-promotion for some time. Back in 2015, he was the subject of minor controversy over a series of YouTube videos he starred in promoting the Stephen Harper government’s child-care policies. In one video, Poilievre, who was then Conservative employment minister, walks around having impromptu conversations with people attending a consignment sale at an Ottawa arena, saying at one point “We believe that the real child-care experts are mom and dad.”

Opposition parties attacked Poilievre for using taxpayer funds to create “vanity videos.” But Poilievre refused to make any “apologies” and the whole thing soon blew over. Seven years later, it appears Poilievre was just early to the trend of using social media to spread a political brand, a tactic now used by everyone from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to Democratic congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In a recent video posted to his YouTube account Poilievre is seen filling up a minivan at a snowy Toronto gas station where prices are over $2 per litre. “I have a common sense plan to tackle these high prices, which includes getting rid of the carbon tax,” Poilievre says, disregarding the fact that prices are skyrocketing primarily because of COVID-linked disruptions and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, not Canadian climate policies — or that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently put out a major report warning that if we do not rapidly get greenhouse gas emissions under control more than three billion lives worldwide could be at stake. Yet the video has over 216,000 views.

“I really like Pierre. It seems like he honestly just wants to fix this shit,” one YouTube commentor wrote of Poilievre’s $123.74 gasoline bill. Another added, “I love how Pierre used the cheapest grade of fuel just like the common man.”

The online performance of “relatability” is part of a deliberate strategy used by social media influencers, which in recent years has been adapted by high-profile conservatives to market a series of increasingly far-right positions, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. think tank Data & Society. “Rather than stressing institutional credibility, political influencers highlight how relatable and accessible they are to their audiences,” reads the report, which is entitled “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube.”

“These content creators use collaborations with other influencers and responses to audience feedback to cultivate a sense of loyalty,” it adds.

Evidence of Poilievre collaborating with like-minded political brands could be seen in March 2021, when he posted a photo of himself on Facebook out for a walk with his daughter. In the photo, which currently has 20,000 likes, he’s wearing a black hoodie that displays the logo for Oil Sands Strong, a pro-oil and gas Facebook group created by Fort McMurray marketer Robbie Picard.

Since the logo includes a raised fist, the Carleton Federal Liberal Association in Poilievre’s riding saw an opportunity to attack. “Poilievre sure loves this hoodie,” it tweeted. “Does he deny climate change? And what’s with the clenched white fist, a white supremacy symbol? Really?” But it was a strategic blunder that activated Poilievre’s social media allies.

Oil Sands Strong’s Picard, who is Métis, posted a photo of himself with two Black women: “Amazing night out with my two best ladies!” Poilievre then reposted that photo with a caption demanding the Liberal association apologize. “The tweet disparaged Fort Mac and falsely alleged racism,” he said. The episode was ignored by mainstream media outlets, but covered extensively in True North, the Post Millennial and Rebel News, the far-right outlet created by Ezra Levant which has 321,000 Facebook followers.

An Alberta-based site called the Buffalo Tribune (15,800 followers) hosted a 47-minute Facebook interview with Picard about the Liberal tweet. “The fist represents solidarity,” said Picard, who didn’t respond to an interview request from The Tyee.

Transitioning to the bigger picture, Picard described as “nonsense” to Buffalo Tribune host Rob Boutilier the idea that someone would criticize the climate impacts of the oilsands, not noting that they are one of Canada’s largest and fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Wind and solar, Picard argued incorrectly, are just as damaging to the environment: “There’s no such thing as green energy.”

By that point the Carleton Federal Liberal Association had deleted the tweet about Poilievre. It didn’t reply to a media request from The Tyee.

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Poilievre risked his reputation by allying himself with the anti-vaccine mandate convoy, some of whose members embrace extremist ideas. But his profile got a big boost by right-wing media that circulated his tweets with pictures like these. Photos via Twitter.

Last November, the Buffalo Tribune’s Boutilier posted a Facebook video to his 77,000 followers entitled “Society demanding I get vaccinated is a load of bullshxt.” As the Omicron surge took off, leading to record case counts across Canada, his site posted articles dismissive of disease prevention measures. When anti-vaxers set up a GoFundMe for a trucker protest in Ottawa that January, the Buffalo Tribune showed people how to donate. And weeks into the convoy’s occupation of the capital, during which some protesters displayed confederate flags and swastikas, the site shared on Facebook legal resources for truckers facing charges.

As in Canada’s mainstream media, the so-called “freedom convoy” was major news across the country’s right-wing social media ecosystem. Sites such as the Post Millennial, True North and Rebel News posted story after story praising the demonstration. Canada Proud blitzed its followers with memes and posts. In the midst of it all, Poilievre met with protesters and posed in front of a sign saying “Stocked shelves, thank a trucker. Empty shelves, thank Trudeau.”

To some commentators this was political suicide. “By aligning with the convoy, Poilievre repels most Canadians,” Randy Boswell argued on iPolitics. But on far-right social media feeds Poilievre was treated like a hero. Shortly after appearing at the convoy, Poilievre gave a speech in the House of Commons attacking Trudeau for calling out Nazi symbolism among the Ottawa occupiers. Poilievre posted a video of the speech to his Facebook page with the hashtag #TruckersNotTrudeau.

It was soon being repackaged and spread across social media. “MUST WATCH: Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre SLAMS Trudeau for falsely claiming the trucker convoy is ‘racist,’” read an early February headline on the Post Millennial. Canada Proud reposted the story, with a caption questioning Trudeau’s “moral authority to call others racist.”

“I’d say that there is likely no small measure of political opportunism in politicians like Poilievre harmonizing their political rhetoric with operations like Canada Proud,” Shane Gunster, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University who studies Canada’s right-wing digital platforms, told The Tyee. “Those platforms have significant reach and deep resonance in parts of the conservative base that politicians like Poilievre are keen to reach.”

Canada Proud is now making regular posts trashing Poilievre’s competitors in the Conservative leadership race. “Things that belong in the '90s,” reads one recent meme with photos of a Sony Walkman, a brightly coloured ski jacket and Tory leadership candidate Jean Charest. Poilievre’s opposition to COVID restrictions has helped win him the support of right-wing mega-influencer Jordan Peterson, who tweeted to his 2.4 million followers in January that Poilievre “is a Canadian politician who appears both courageous and articulate.” (Two weeks later, Peterson went on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he mocked climate activists and questioned if the climate emergency is real.)

Polls now suggest Poilievre is the frontrunner among Conservative voters. “He is very popular with the partisan base,” Woodfinden said. “It really is his to lose.”

In mid-March, Poilievre posted a video to YouTube of him taking a selfie with a security guard named J.R. “We’re legalizing the smile, eh?” Poilievre says with his hand on the guard’s shoulder. “We’re gonna give Canadians back control of their lives, right J.R.?” The video feels spontaneous and unscripted, casting a career politician who wants to eliminate climate-stabilizing taxes on Canada’s largest oil and gas companies as a man of the people.

“Keep it up Pierre!” someone commented. “Let’s take back this country.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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