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February 7, 2023

Are public figures at risk online?


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Canada’s former top civil servant advised that politicians are receiving increasingly ‘vile’ messages of abuse and threats online.  He previously voiced his fear that rising tides of incitement to violence would lead to someone getting shot. In my experience, he’s not wrong, politicians aren’t alone and it’s actually worse than people think.  And the most unfortunate part may be something he didn’t say – the victims are often totally on their own and ill equipped without options or support to manage this very real threat. 

I’ve seen it up close

I was a candidate in the Ontario election in 2018. After almost ten years intentionally avoiding social media I set up a campaign Facebook, Instagram and Twitter account to engage with the public and raise my own profile. I didn’t want to do it but I felt I had to. After all, I was running to represent the people in my riding I thought I’d have a better chance if they knew who I was and I made myself open, and accessible to them. Of course, very few people message candidates to say ‘hello’ or ‘good job’. I got some light hectoring direct messages and snarky comments when I would post even the most benign and bland campaign style message. I was a long-shot candidate in a 5 week campaign. I got off extremely easy.

The true venom was reserved for the officials that actually won. Prior and post my own campaign I worked in the Ontario Public Service under a very unpopular Liberal government at the end of Kathleen Wynne’s mandate and under a very unpopular PC government at the beginning of Doug’ Ford’s. Our office was acutely aware of the threats faced by MPP’s. Sometimes there were acts of vandalism. On occasion there were formal charges. However, for the most part we simply witnessed a daily bombardment of gross, toxic, hateful online harassment. It was almost sort of passively accepted as a price or punishment that the people we’ve entrusted to govern us have to deal with for their service.  

You Shouldn’t Be on Your Own

I say “accepted” because there is a very high bar for criminal charges. Below that, the prevailing alternative I’ve heard suggested is, if someone doesn’t like being on social media, they should just sign off. That may be true for some, but is zero Digital footprint and no online engagement what we want for our public office holders? How about journalists? Public health officials? Do we really want the choice for everyone to be binary? Open, accessible and available or… a ghost. This is where we are headed when even some of the simplest means of protection in the form of a twitter block button is increasingly up for debate and legal challenge.

Here’s my point, and it’s not reserved exclusively for politicians but anyone who is expected to have some online exposure and digital engagement as a function of their job – you deserve to be protected. If you do not have awareness and visibility into the risk you face online and adequate support to mitigate any threats that develop there, you are vulnerable to a cyber or physical attack. To take this one step further, since I believe we’ve moved past the point where social media and digital engagement is optional, I therefore believe employers have a responsibility and owe a duty of care to their employees to ensure they are able to engage online safely and securely.

Online Risks and Threats Require Online Support

The hyper global connectivity facilitated with the internet, social media and instant messaging applications allows us to communicate and engage with each other, including public figures,  in many positive ways. It also provides a platform for threat actors to organize more widely, rapidly and in greater numbers around their shared cause and in some cases directly and aggressively against select targeted individuals. The right to debate, advocate and protest online is lawful and protected. Protection and support against harassment,  threats, even account takeovers and hacking should be too for those that need to be engage digitally as a function of their job. 

At Kirsch Group we are proud to offer a number of cyber security services for individuals including an Online Exposure Threat Risk Assessments

If you are facing any personal challenges or would like to discuss options for assisting your staff, please get in touch. I am here to help. 

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