Civil Litigation

Did the PMO overstep by asking Twitter to delete parody account?

By Staff

Toronto lawyer and mediator Howard Winkler tells Global’s 640 Toronto he’s concerned the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) may have overstepped its authority by requesting Twitter delete what it said was a fake account impersonating Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

At the heart of the matter was whether the account was a parody or an impersonation, but either way, the optics don’t look good, says Winkler, principal and founder of Winkler Dispute Resolution.

“I’m always concerned when the government becomes involved in attempting to persuade parties they have influence over — through their legislative power — to act in a way that’s politically beneficial to the government,” he says. “I would think that the government likely should have a hands-off policy with respect to trying to influence the content on social media.”

While Twitter does make provisions for complaints of impersonation, Winkler questions whether the PMO played “too heavy a hand,” given its power to adversely affect social media companies through regulation, pointing to a similar threat made by the prime minister last November.

The real question is whether such parody accounts are misleading, he says.

“If these sites are clearly understood by people to be parodies then to try and restrict their publication really is an attempt to restrict freedom of expression, and that’s inappropriate,” Winkler says, adding that neither the government nor Twitter itself is the best arbiter in this situation.

The third option for the PMO would have been to recognize the broad protection of freedom of expression and seldom interfere with what might be interpreted as parody rather than impersonation, Winkler says.

“Generally politicians accept that they’re fair game for critical comment, parody and whatnot. Historically, politicians have been reluctant to restrain or be seen as attempting to restrain freedom of expression,” he says.

Winkler says there’s a delicate balance between free speech and the protection of the integrity of the democratic system, both of which are important principles.

“When we get into the situation of a general election, the key is not to restrict opinion or comment, but to ensure that it’s clear who is … expressing the opinion so people can judge for themselves the credibility of it and whether they wish to rely on it,” he says.

Before the advent of social media, people stood in the public square to express their political views or criticisms of politicians without restraint, but today it’s channelled through operators such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, Winkler says.

“It creates a problem because we have private businesses that are motivated for profit essentially being the filter and the judge of what speech is going to be permitted or not permitted,” he says.

Winkler says he hopes the incident prompts further public discussion.

“It is a tough call as to whether this is an impersonation versus parody, but given the universal access to Twitter, it’s open for the individual who is arguably being impersonated to respond on the Twitter account and say, ‘hey this isn’t my account, this is a parody account.’”

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