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Dispatch from The Front Line: Comms aren't the government's problem
Lots of federal politics, some COVID, and, yeah yeah, a bit of C-18.
Well Line readers, if you've been enjoying a blissful summer free of scandals that fundamentally undermine your faith in governments, scientists, and the media, whoo boy are you we going to spoil your weekend. Sorry!
But, like, enjoy the dispatch, we guess?
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First up: our video!
In case you had missed it, the Substacks are absolutely abuzz with this story from Public, which this week reported on a trove of emails and private slack messages from the scientists who published the seminal 2020 paper The Proximal Origin of Sars-Cov-2 in Nature Medicine. While the catchy headline may not ring a bell, believe us when we tell you that you have heard of it. Because this was the paper cited thousands of times in countless media articles and online discussions to prove that COVID-19 was not the result of a lab leak. A very inconvenient lab leak that would have been embarrassing for the Chinese, and difficult for countless scientific researchers who depend on controversial engineering techniques to further their work.
Fortunately for them, COVID-19 came from a bat or a pangolin in a wet market in Wuhan — close to the rather notoriously dodgy Wuhan Institute of Virology, sure, but hey, that seafood market is, like, half an hour away by car. Way too far to drop in for a quick lunch, and have you seen the traffic in China, nowadays? Besides, we know that handfuls of virologists have studied the issue at length. Everyone who said that they thought a lab leak could be responsible was just a conspiracy theorist, a racist, or a nutter, obviously. Or, worse, a Republican.
Well, yeah, about that.
To wit: "Public and Racket have obtained hundreds of previously unreleased email and Slack direct messages which cover the period when [scientists] collaborated to write 'Proximal Origin.' ... They show that [the scientists] clearly thought it was indeed possible not only that the virus that causes Covid-19 had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but specifically that it had been cultured in the laboratory."
We're going to leave it to you to click on the links above, but needless to say Public's got the receipts. They’ve got private conversations between the scientists that directly disputes their public statements, and oblique comments about "higher ups" that suggest their work was being pushed by elements within the U.S. government. Hell, the pangolin even makes a cameo. Remember him?
Not from Wuhan, you don’t, because apparently these little dudes were not in any of that city’s wet markets when COVID-19 broke out. Neither were bats, but we digress.
If you prefer, Nate Silver has also summed the whole thing up rather succinctly on his site here.
We don't have a lot to add about the lab leak stuff specifically. Neither Gerson nor Gurney have the scientific knowledge or accumulated journalistic skillset to offer anything worthwhile on the likely origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. We won’t pretend otherwise, but we will note that, man, is this really bad timing for a government and media that is already struggling with trust issues. Damn.
The fact that these revelations are being better covered on myriad Substacks than any mainstream media outlet is also not helpful!
But what this whole developing scandal really reminded us of was, ironically, another scientific paper that was published in the midst of the pandemic. This one in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology was released in September 2021 and titled: “Misplaced trust: When trust in science fosters belief in pseudoscience and the benefits of critical evaluation.”
The paper consisted of the results of four pre-registered experiments of decent sample size, albeit administered online. They introduced false claims about a fictional virus created as a bioweapon, and about the carcinogenic nature of GMO foods.
The results were so, so very telling.
"Participants who trust science are more likely to believe and disseminate false claims that contain scientific references than false claims that do not," and "We conclude that trust in science, although desirable in many ways, makes people vulnerable to pseudoscience."
Let that sink in. The people who #BelieveScience are more vulnerable to falling for pseudoscientific claims, especially when those claims are presented with the comforting ephemera of science — the lab coats, the credentials, the technical studies filled with jargon. That's because "Believing Science" isn't the same thing as actually doing science. "Believing Science" is a statement of tribal affiliation. All this claim demonstrates is that a person wants to be seen as the sort of individual who believes experts and takes advice from trusted and credentialed officials. For the most part, this is a good instinct! But if those experts and trusted officials are wrong, malicious, or simply full of shit, the "Believe Science" crowd will reliably fall in line. Because of its ideological affiliation, this crowd is, ironically, far less capable of spotting bad science.
Actually doing science as opposed to merely believing in it requires that we all evaluate claims critically regardless of their origins; we look for inconsistencies, we examine the quality of the evidence presented, and we question the credibility of the people making the claims.
This is something worth remembering no matter who you are, but is especially worth remembering for journalists. Line editor Gerson will have more to say on that topic soon.
We don't feel like we need to spend much time recapping what happened in Belleville, Ontario this week. You've probably heard about it by now. If you missed it, the prime minister was in the small Ontario city for routine political events: meet with local leadership, visit local businesses, shake hands, kiss babies, and all that jazz. His visit had to be cut short after the PM and his security detail were surrounded by an angry mob waving anti-Trudeau (to put it politely) flags and hurling verbal abuse. The PM tried to continue on with his visit to a market but wasn't able to get through the crowd and left early. Video of the event has made the rounds on social media, and it's disturbing.
That'll suffice for a recap, but we'd like to make a few comments.
First, this isn't the first time we've seen something like this. This is, in fact, familiar. We memorably (or perhaps infamously) saw precisely this kind of behaviour during the 2021 election. What did strike us as interesting, though, was ... why now? Why there? Why Belleville, this week? During the last election, while we certainly didn't condone the nasty behaviour of some protests, we understood the when and where part. It was an election campaign, and the PM's schedule was publicly available. The protesters went where he did. This time, though? His visit was obviously announced in advance, but we haven't seen this kind of response in a long time. It was clearly organized somewhere. We'd be interested to know where. It could be as simple as a Facebook post or TikTok video by a single person going viral and drawing enough attention to get a hundred or so people together. But we'd still be curious to know these details.
The other point we'd like to make is that this is a classic example of an issue that turns otherwise smart people into morons. One can be critical of the prime minister while still thinking that the nature of the protests and the rhetoric used against him are disgusting. Likewise, one can be horrified by the actions of certain protesters without necessarily assuming that all criticism of Trudeau is tainted by exposure to the nutters. The man is entirely fair game for criticism, even angry criticism. He deserves a lot of it. But societal norms mater, too, and they exist for a reason: So, sure, you have every right to wave a Fuck Trudeau flag but we have every right to think you're an idiot for doing it. (If only because it's probably counterproductive: we agree with colleague Brian Lilley about how this likely helps Trudeau more than it hurts him.)
We get it. The PM and his protesters are both emotionally polarizing, but that's all the more reason to remember a few critical points: 1. Protest, even profane and raucous protest, is perfectly legal and acceptable in a democracy, even if it targets a person or cause you happen to like. 2. Violence and threats of violence and intimidation cannot and must not be neither tolerated nor condoned. And 3. These aren't the same things, and they aren't hard to tell apart, despite all the people pretending to be confused this week.
That's it. Really. That's it. This isn't as hard as we apparently insist on making it.
The final point we'd make is one we made back in 2021. We are very politely but extremely strongly urging the PM, his staffers and advisors to resist their obvious impulse to lean into these protests because they find the optic of the PM vs. The Nutters flattering and politically beneficial. Let's just skip any bullshit denials here — not only would they do exactly that, they've already done exactly that. Back in 2021, there was an overt and obvious decision to hold campaign events in a way that put the PM and his entourage close enough to the protesters to get some great photos and videos of Trudeau fearlessly facing down his bonkers critics.
And then, suddenly, it stopped.
You can actually see the pivot right here in our own coverage. On August 29th, 2021, in our dispatch to our readers, we wrote about the protests. A few days later, after a series of events during which Trudeau had lingered within steps of the mobs decrying him, a man threw gravel at the PM during a campaign stop in Ontario. By our next dispatch, on September 11th, we were noting that there had been an obvious and evident change in the PM's security at events, with much more controlled access and an obvious emphasis on protecting the PM from harm. To which we simply noted, "Someone seems to have gotten to Trudeau or his campaign handlers. Sanity may be prevailing. To this, we say simply … good. And about time."
So, again, we won't abide anyone clutching their pearls at our suggestion that Trudeau would choose to take the anger of these crowds and whip it up even more for electoral gain. He's done it before. And it's a terrible idea, now as much as then. The PM simply doesn't have the right to put other people in danger. And that's exactly what happens when he courts blowback. If, God forbid, anyone takes a shot at the PM, or pulls a knife or throws a Molotov cocktail or any other such appalling stupidity, the PM's security detail will do all they can to protect him. But they won't be able to protect everyone. Members of the PM's staff, local volunteers from the closest Liberal MP's constituency office, supporters and protesters of the PM alike and even random passersby may be hurt or even killed.
We don't blame the PM for the protesters, nor would we hold him responsible for any violent acts. But we absolutely would hold him accountable for a decision to skimp on basic and routine security precautions because he's seeking political benefit. At the most basic level, we don't want anyone — very much including Justin Trudeau — to get hurt. And we don't look kindly on anyone who makes that more likely. The Liberals made dumb choices in 2021, before listening to reason and smartening up. We hope we don't need to repeat that whole smartening-up process this time, and that the PM consistently receives the protection he needs at events that are designed to minimize the risk for everyone involved.
Another note must be added to the Prime Minister's file. Careful readers of The Line will already be aware that we are squeamish about topics that fall broadly under the topic of "culture war." We don't avoid them, necessarily, but we try to pick our spots, narrowing our hot-take barrage to sub-trenches where we feel we might be of use. We don't try to take sides in these kinds of cultural battles, per se, because we feel there's more to be benefit to be had by providing insight than ammunition, and some of these topics are so arcane and outside our scope of expertise or, frankly, interest that there's not much we can add that betters the contributions of more established players in the field.
Also: we find most of those players lame. Seriously, folks. Where do y’all find the energy to be so amped up and furious all the time?
That throat cleared, this week offered us a video clip of Trudeau that was just too interesting for us to pass up. Readers may recall a story from a few weeks ago in which several Muslim students in Edmonton absented themselves from Pride events and were lambasted by their teacher, who told them that they had to support this event or they “can’t be Canadians.” We didn't make much note of it at the time because our colleague and friend at the National Post Colby Cosh had the definitive and winning take: that is, the teacher is a fucknut. These kids didn't protest or object to pride or make their peers feel uncomfortable in any way. They just declined to participate. And in a pluralistic society, politely absenting oneself from ideological events with which one disagrees and instead hanging out at the Orange Julius or wherever the hell kids spend time these days is about the most perfect and Canadian response.
Perhaps not coincidentally, upon receiving such clear signals about the conduct that is now expected of a Canadian, Muslim parents are organizing ever louder protests against what they deem to be LGBTQ "indoctrination" in schools. And if you've been paying any attention to the logic pretzels that have been spun about intersectionality, lived experiences, the importance of listening to minority voices in majority cultures and so on, this is about the point at which you're going to grab the popcorn, because what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a bona fide clash of values between competing minority interest groups.
So we give the prime minister a lot of credit for meeting with Muslim parents in a Calgary-area mosque last week to discuss the issue. And we mean that! Genuinely! Heading face-first into a mob of angry parents is a really difficult thing for anybody to do. He deserves credit for doing this.
However, the response that was recorded by attendees was also very, very interesting. The furore over LGBTQ issues in schools is much ado about nothing, he insisted; the result of right-wing extremists spreading "a lot of untruths about what's actually in provincial curriculums."
Trudeau continued: "They are weaponizing the issue of LGBT, which is something that, yes, Islam has strong opinions on .... That is something that is being weaponized by people who are not doing it because of their interest in supporting the Muslim community."
A few notes about this response: The first is that it is undeniably true. There are anti-LGBTQ activists who are trying to mobilize the Muslim community because this minority population has greater moral suasion among the intersectionality set than socially conservative white Christians. There are right-wing commentators out there who focus on cases, videos, examples and books that they claim demonstrates a pervasive trend of "indoctrination" on LGBTQ issues in school environments. The examples are out there, and some are age-inappropriate. However, we have no sense that those examples are representative of what’s happening in most classrooms. Are there a lot more non-binary 12-year-olds in middle school nowadays? Sure. Is that a problem? We don’t know. Maybe? But we've yet to walk into an elementary school hosting a 24/7 Pride Parade with naked men and women throwing rainbow glitter and condoms to the kiddies. We are savvy enough media consumers to know that in a social-media age, edge cases have a habit of being falsely portrayed as routine.
Our snark aside, Trudeau’s response is interesting because it is also a dodge. Trudeau doesn't actually want to deal with the hard problem of how to accommodate competing minority rights. So instead he pretends there is no problem. He blames the perception of a problem on disinformation agents. Marvellous — right up until the moment we see some video from a Toronto school of a teacher screaming at eight-year-olds that there is no such thing as boys and girls and that the whole concept of biological sex is an expression of imperialism and white supremacy. (Ed note: pin this graf for future victory lap.)
Or, just as an example of the sort of thing that just maybe could happen, when an ostensibly trans shop teacher shows up to class in a wig and Size-Z prosthetic breasts with armour-piercing nipples and the school board responds by saying “This is not a problem, you bigot,” and then it turns out that the teacher in question hasn’t been entirely upfront about their life! Or until, well, some teacher tells a bunch of Edmonton kids that skipping pride to head to the mall makes them un-Canadian. Oops! Wait, so who's lying now?
The second reason we found this response interesting is that it's become this government's go-to deflection. All criticism is just disinformation. Anybody who disagrees with the Liberals is a baddie because can’t you see how awesome and empathetic and genuinely well intentioned they are? Throw in a little threadbare virtue, a touch of white saviour: "you, poor, deluded, Muslims, are just being manipulated by malign forces and can't possibly understand what you're saying or what you really believe," and you've got a pitch-perfect urban progressive Canadian non-comment. It's a mask slip moment, when we see exactly how Trudeau seems himself, and how he sees the people he's talking to. Oh wait: actual Muslims find this statement condescending and insulting? Don't they know whose side they're supposed to be on? Maybe they're just watching too much Matt Walsh. Why does anybody need to define what a woman is anyway? Maybe we need a new law for that so the plebes stop getting so confused ...
You see where this logic takes us. We may wade into this one a bit more at The Line in coming days and weeks, so enough said for now. But for now, it's enough to note that this is not how a mature, pluralistic society handles irreconcilable differences in values and beliefs. Generally speaking, everyone is pretty content to let adults live and let live, but when you bring kids into any ideological agenda, expect matters to get ugly quickly. And you're going to need a better response to legitimate concerns about how an emerging secular ideological consensus around gender and ideology crashes against deeply held religious values than: "YouTube lies."
We feel like we’ve talked about the prime minister enough, but we did want to slip in a quick comment about the cabinet shuffle that is widely expected in the coming days. Actually, not really even about the shuffle itself — we’ll talk about that once it happens — but about some of the political messaging ahead of the shuffle.
First and foremost, we’d point our readers to a piece by Tonda MacCharles in the Star, where she talks with the usual array of insider types and discovers that the Liberals want to punch up their political communications. It turns out that the Liberals don’t think they’re doing a good enough job getting their message out. There is a recognition that they have had some files where they haven’t delivered, and Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, that poor soul, are both mentioned in MacCharles’ piece by name as ministers who’ve flopped in their current assignments. But overall, the sense among Liberals seems to be that the government needs better communicators in key places.
Further to that, though not specifically about the cabinet shuffle, we read with interest an article by Max Fawcett in the National Observer. The article is about housing, and we broadly agree with Max’s take, but we found the introduction interesting: “After nearly eight years in power, one thing has become abundantly clear about Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government: it can’t communicate to save its increasingly vulnerable political life. From the carbon tax to COVID-19, its otherwise good policies are consistently undermined by a total inability to explain them to Canadians.” Later in the piece, Fawcett describes this as “this Liberal government’s biggest weakness.”
To which we at The Line arched a Vulcan-esque eyebrow.
We have no desire to start a media bun fight with either MacCharles or Fawcett (well, with the former’s sources, but still). So consider this an observation, not a criticism. But we were fascinated to see two articles by smart people within days of each other both signalling that this government’s greatest problem is insufficient talent for comms. If you ask us, the Liberals are actually spectacularly good at communications. It’s the governing part where they struggle.
We’ve made this point many times before so we won’t belabour it again, but that unusual talent for communication is the only thing keeping this government alive. It has been able to reliably narrowcast a delusional upbeat version of its record in office to just enough voters to cling to power on a declining number of votes, even as their actual policy accomplishments have underwhelmed or failed altogether. We agree with Fawcett about Hussen’s recent faceplant on housing, and Lord knows we’ve written at length about Mendicino’s various fuck ups, but these are mainly notable for their rarity. We don’t often see the Liberals losing a communications battle the way Hussen is losing on housing and the way Mendicino lost on guns, foreign interference, the Bernardo transfer, and more.
Communications matters. It does. Your Line editors are, in their own way, in the comms business ourselves. But we are much more aligned with our friend Paul Wells’ view of things, and especially of this government. We think Fawcett and others have it completely reversed: the problem this government has is that, with the odd notable exception like the hapless Mendicino aside, it’s too good at communications. As Wells noted at length in his recent fantastic series of articles, the comms component of the job has devoured everything else.
(See our comments above about how the Liberals dismiss all criticism as misinfo/disinfo: that, too, is a problem of viewing the entire world as a communications management issue.)
Anyway. We’ll see what the cabinet looks like after the next shuffle. But put us down as skeptical that the government’s problems will be solved by better communication. That might solve some Liberal Party of Canada political problems, but we’d remind our readers that these aren’t actually literally the same thing, as much some seem to believe that they are.
Lastly, we at The Line have promised not to bore you all with too much media gossip and news, but we simply cannot help ourselves. This week, an article was published in the FT about Canada's C-18 catastrophe and there were three quotes in it that gave us a good, deep chuckle.
The first was from Paul Deegan, the head of News Media Canada, the media's lobbying arm in Canada. He noted that 30 advertisers had threatened to pull out of Meta/Facebook, led by the federal government, B.C. and Quebec.
“The company [Facebook] is running the very real risk of losing more in revenue than they would pay news businesses under the Online News Act,” Deegan said.
That may or may not be true; by his own admission, revenue from Canada accounts for only 2.5 per cent of Meta's global cash flow. The loss of capital from this mini-advertiser boycott would presumably amount to a small fraction of this. Considering the regulations haven't actually pinned Facebook to paying Canadian media a specific amount, it's literally impossible for anyone to say whether or not the boycott is costing more than pulling out is saving. Which was one of the major flaws in the bill, no?
The second comment was from Andrew MacLeod, the chief executive of Postmedia, who said that the company had been “modelling out a short-term reduction in traffic” for the inevitable loss of Facebook. However, "It’s good that we are shaking up the industry [as] it might create outcomes for a more viable structural future.”
True, we suppose! While he's at it, we hope he's modelled out what will happen if they lose Google, too. And if he's expecting that loss to amount to a short-term blip, well, we don't know what to say except he needs some better models.
The last, from minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez, who remained “deeply convinced that Google’s and Facebook’s concerns can be resolved through the regulatory process.” “If Facebook truly believes that news has no value, they can say so at the negotiating table."
That's not true. The law makes assigning $0 to news impossible. The bill forces tech companies into negotiations with media outlets, and the outcomes of those negotiations have to be approved by the CRTC — a regulator which has the explicit mandate to wring cash out of Facebook for these news agencies.
"Threats to pull news instead of complying with the laws in our country only highlight the power that platforms hold over news organizations, both big and small,” he added.
Meta is pulling news in order to comply with the new laws of our country; and while we suppose their decision does highlight the power of these platforms, if Deegan is correct, the governments and advertisers are apparently already spending exactly as much on the platforms as they want the platforms to be spending on Canadian news.
So … why not just give that money to the news companies? Right? If it’s a wash, what the hell are we doing?
Perhaps in the future, everyone could have saved themselves the trouble of legislation if the government and those 30 advertisers had simply decided to park all those boycotted ad dollars directly with the media instead of Facebook. Money, like time, is a flat circle, friends.
That’s it for this week! Thanks, everyone! Talk to you soon. And if you haven’t already, please support us, either by subscribing today or by signing up as a monthly donor. Remember: we are raising the cost of our subscription after Labour Day. Lock in now!
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