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J.J. McCullough Headshot

The Media's Pre-Programmed Response to Robocalls

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Well, at least it's been a good week for the nation's cartoonists.

One of the lamest  things about making caricatures for the editorial page is all the time you spend drawing stupid boring junk like deficits and Nycole Turmel instead of cool, fun stuff like pirates and dinosaurs. So the joy has been palatable that Canadian politics is finally having a robot-themed scandal to liven things up a bit. The march of these charming Lost in Space-esque robo-men into newspapers coast to coast may be the only bright side to a story that would have otherwise had us focusing all our attention on dreary things like poutine parlours and Guelph, Ontario.

For those just joining us now, last Wednesday, the Postmedia team broke a story revealing that during the 2011 federal election, a national call centre under Conservative employ sent misleading robocalls to hapless voters in the riding of incumbent Liberal MP Frank Valeriote. "Clank clank, Go vote at the crappy mall with bad parking," said the robots. But then when the voters got there... there was no voting to be found!

Aaand scene. That's literally all we know about the scandal right now, which means it's an incredibly exciting time for the nation's political commentators, who will never again enjoy such a vacuum of ambiguity just begging to be filled with their wildest partisan fantasies. Most of these wistful dreams, in turn, center around the premise that since at least one species of deceptive robocall allegedly had some manner of Tory approval, wouldn't it be awesome if all the other deceptive -- or even just annoying -- robocalls that apparently plagued the last election were part of some large Conservative conspiracy, too?

Warren Kinsella wastes little time reaching for the big guns, in this case, the r-word. "If senior people within the Conservative Party of Canada conspired to rig the May 2011 election, what are the consequences?" he asks. I imagine they'd be pretty severe, Warren. And if senior aunts within the Conservative Party of Canada were men, I imagine they'd be uncles. But that's the fun of "if."

Never one to be outdone in raising the rhetorical stakes, Barbara Yaffee at the Vancouver Sun goes one step further, declaring that the whole alleged business of nation-wide shenanigans "sounds like Vladimir Putin's Russia or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe." Frankly, I thought Putin's Russia and Mugabe's Zimbabwe sounded more like cracking skulls and exploding tear gas canisters, but then again it can be hard to hear Guelph from Vancouver.

Surprisingly, pundits on the right have been somewhat quicker to downplay the idea that Canadian democracy is dangling by a single-frayed thread over Stephen Harper's Bokassa-style alligator pit. Nixon analogies are overdone, but for connivence's sake, we can call them the "third-rate burglary" faction.

After asking some of his Tory buddies what's up, Jon Ivison at the National Post concludes that "at this stage, there is no evidence of a co-ordinated campaign to misdirect voters," which would probably surprise Daniel Veniez at the Mark, who says "the Conservative party engaged in an organized and systematic voter-suppression campaign." So clearly they'll have to agree to disagree. The best dismissal of all came from Michael Coren on Sun TV, however, who in language only a true Englishman could muster, waved off the very notion that anyone should give a whit about "a few silly phone calls."

With conclusions now firmly established, in the weeks to follow pundits will have to begin the less glamorous business of assembling actual evidence to support their case. Dan Gardner (who, as he helpfully reminds us, has written a book about this sort of thing) worries the story is in danger of getting trapped in the "the feedback effect," however, where the majority overzealous reporters push one particular narrative -- conspiracy! -- so strongly that it ultimately warps memories and generates an "avalanche of faulty recollections, self-serving illusions, and plain old lies." In other words, when the Globe leads with a guy claiming rigged calls "definitely changed my vote," take it with grain of salt.

The worst damage is probably already done, in any case. Ideological polarization is a nasty thing, and as our politics gets ever-more bound up in epic, irresolvable clashes between right and left, new standards of victory invariably demand opponents not only be defeated, destroyed, and hated, but also rendered illegal and illegitimate.

For the left, the idea that the Harper administration is not only dangerous and malevolent, but also rode into office on a rigged election of "systematic subversion" may prove too attractive to ever jettison, regardless of what the facts end up saying. Tory-backers, for their part, are welcome to merrily la-la-la their way through the dirty details of whatever inquiry inevitably winds up being called.

A story of robots indeed.

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