“The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
– Robert W. Service, 1907
The Northern Lights have seen many queer sights in the century-plus since the Bard of the Yukon published “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” But few have been stranger than the emergence of social media as a potent, some would say overwhelming, force in political systems around the world.
These days, people are not only prepared to believe what they find on social media – stuff spread by strangers whose motives they cannot fathom – they may trust it more than information available to them via traditional news media. And whether it’s news, rumour, gossip or lies, it spreads like wildfire on the web.
A case in point is the foofaraw over the “interaction” – or whatever it was – 18 years ago at a beer festival/fundraiser in Creston, B.C. between Justin Trudeau, then a 28-year-old school teacher and bachelor, eight years away from entering politics, and Rose Knight, a young reporter for the local Creston Valley Advance.
Judging from photos taken at the event, everyone, Trudeau included, was enjoying the refreshments provided by the festival’s brewery sponsor. What happened between the young man and the young woman only they know. Knight says Trudeau “groped” her without being any more specific than that, groping being a term that seems to mean anything from innocent touching to sexual assault.
Perhaps Trudeau hit on Knight. Perhaps she flirted with him, a good-looking guy. (Yes, #MeToo notwithstanding, women still flirt with men, and vice versa.)
Trudeau denied doing anything inappropriate, but, just in case he had, he apologized the next day. It was a qualified apology, but Knight accepted it, and that might have been that. No one was hurt. No one was offended.
That should have been the end of it – an incident not worth reporting. But it’s not so simple in the age of social media and high-speed internet.
An editorial that Knight wrote, but did not sign, in the Advance came to light all these years later; in it, she related an encounter between Trudeau and an unnamed reporter (herself, as we now know) and his apology.
One way or another, the piece fell into the hands of Warren Kinsella, a Conservative operative known for his take-no-prisoners approach to politics. His blog, called The War Room, reflects his style.
He posted the editorial on his blog, and the story went viral. A quick check on the web shows it was picked up on gossip sites around the world as well as by such mainstream outlets as the Washington Post, USA Today and the Guardian in Britain.
Everywhere he went, Trudeau was questioned about that 18-year-old incident. He became his own worst enemy. At first, he could not remember what had happened in Creston, then he remembered there had been an “interaction” with a reporter. The questions kept coming.
He tried again, sort of: "I've been reflecting on the actual interaction and if I apologized later, then it would be because I sensed that she was not entirely comfortable with the interaction that we had."
Every hesitation, qualification or attempted clarification simply fueled a new round of social media excitement.
If Trudeau was his own worst enemy, he did not get any useful support from his staff, which has proved to be as inept as Stephen Harper’s was at damage control.
Politicians these days have no real defence against social mediamania. Their wisest course is full disclosure – admit everything that is true; deny everything they can prove is untrue; do not wobble when admitting or denying; then hunker down, shut up and wait for the firestorm to pass, which it will.
One other thing. They should strike that evasive word “interaction” from their vocabulary. The one in Creston will fade, but not before it has extracted its toll from Trudeau’s credibility.