Mayoral candidate Jeromy Farkas said when you take the step toward political office, you need to be open to scrutiny.
Fellow mayoral candidate Jyoti Gondek said public sentiment is unpredictable.
Both have taken part in recent reddit AMAs, or, Ask Me Anythings. It’s literally that: ask the person taking part any question, in a text format, and they are meant to respond.
Seems easy, right? OK. I’ll ask YOU anything.
AMAs, particularly on reddit, aren’t new. Some of you may recall the infamous Jose Canseco AMA. The word you’re trying to think of… trainwreck.
For those who aren’t familiar, reddit is a social-media-slash-content-aggregator. Users post a steady stream of content; some linked to outside sources, others with just questions, pictures or conversation pieces of one’s own making.
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It’s a highly engaged, often political audience of users. According to the most recent statistics, the demographic of users is between the ages of 18 to 29. Between 20 to 25 per cent of people in that age range (in the US) are active redditors. There are 204,000 redditors in Calgary, or roughly 1 in 7 citizens.
Reddit has localized (or by topic) subreddits, including one dedicated to Calgary.
That’s where the conversation about Calgary’s next municipal election has been stirring for some time.
Long-time moderator u/janearcade (Reddit username), said it’s always been a political place. Even locally. AMAs with Alberta NDP leader of the Official Opposition, Rachel Notley, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and even the Calgary police have been done.
“I think it’s a chance for people to talk over text, which some people find more comfortable, and it gives candidates time to carefully kind of think of how they want to respond and put up their answer,” said u/janearcade in an interview with LiveWire Calgary.
But, reddit has taken on a bigger role in this year’s municipal election.
Gondek, Farkas and… Hallelujah
There have already been a few reddit AMAs with Calgary mayoral candidates. More are scheduled (there’s an updated schedule at the end of the article).
Jeromy Farkas, the most recent respondent, said he saw it as an extension of town hall meetings he’s been having since he was first elected as Ward 11 councillor.
He said there was a poll on the political leanings of redditors, and he said the forum skews left of centre. Farkas said he still went into the AMA welcoming the questions.
“If you if you’re not willing to go into settings where it may not necessarily be dominated by your supporters, I’d say you’re not ready to be a city councillor or to be a mayor,” he told LiveWire Calgary.
Jyoti Gondek said it’s a great place to reach a different audience in Calgary.
“I think anytime you can reach a different audience, it’s important to figure out how you do that,” Gondek said.
“If this is a way to engage with people, then it’s something I’m always open to looking at and that’s why we did it.”
The other AMA was with candidate Paul Michael Hallelujah. We’ll get to that story in a bit.
u/janearcade said it’s a good chance for lesser-known candidates to have an hour or more of focused time to reach an audience.
“It’s the chance to ask really specific questions that matter most to (Redditors); there’s a lot less of the kind of generic questions that get answered in other places,” she said.
“I think there’s a power in giving people that voice directly to a candidate.”
With power comes great responsibility
The thing with AMAs is you don’t know what’s going to be asked, and really, you don’t know how it’s going to be answered. That’s the unpredictable nature of reddit AMAs. In a sense, it’s politically titillating.
In one particular instance, it led to wider media coverage and an inflection point in the campaign. Jyoti Gondek was asked specifically about releasing her donor list. It received 957 upvotes – a measure of popularity on the platform. While Gondek expeditiously answered the barrage of questions put her way, that one went visibly unanswered.
It led to a series of events where donor lists became a much bigger issue among a certain segment of voters. Most of the top candidates had a position on it, most, if not all, made donor lists available, and it altered the course of the campaign.
Reddit is a good place for that kind of thing to happen, u/janearcade said.
“It feels very grassroots, it feels like it’s the community, it’s your neighbour, it’s the average person that’s saying, ‘before I make a decision, you owe it to me to give me all the information, and I’m going to call you out when you don’t,’” she said.
While there’s a direct impact on democracy in those situations, other times it can go off the rails.
Locked, but still loaded
The AMA with Paul Michael Hallelujah started at 6 p.m. Sept. 4.
“I remember looking at my clock at 6:23 and being like, ‘I’m gonna have to just shut this down,” said u/janearcade.
“It’s only been going on for 20 minutes but we’re getting into COVID denial and people are getting really hostile.”
She tried to consult with other moderators on a plan of action – pull it down (because of the misinformation) or leave it up and let the dumpster fire burn out of control.
u/janearcade couldn’t reach any of the others, but a decision had to be made.
“In the end, I did leave it up, and then locked it, which means no one else can comment on it when it was over,” she said.
After that, the moderators huddled together to talk about whether that information should stay posted, or even remove the COVID misinformation. They talked about leaving it up so people knew his position on COVID.
The post is still up, though it’s been cleaned somewhat, u/janearcade said. They’ve also posted an explanation.
In retrospect, u/janearcade knew it would be a tough AMA. They wanted him on anyway because they figured it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on contacting Saturn and setting up space lasers.
“So, I thought it was going to be a wild ride, but a different kind of wild ride,” she said.
Gondek said any time you put yourself out there, you have to expect the unexpected. You have to be prepared for any issue to come up.
“I wouldn’t categorize them as risks. I would just say you never know what you’re in for. You don’t know what anybody is going to ask you, you don’t know what anybody’s going to ask you at the door,” she said.
“You certainly don’t know what anybody’s going to ask you when you’re out public and with forums like reddit, when you say, ‘ask me anything,’ you better be ready for that.”
Gondek said, while “trepidatious” at first, she was comfortable answering any question.
“Let’s not forget I’ve been answering questions like this for four years on council, and particularly seven months on the campaign trail and familiar with most of the questions that are being thrown at me,” she said.
Farkas recalled a conversation he had with a councillor on his first day after being elected. They put all his campaign promises into three buckets: Things that were doable but would take time, quick wins and things that were impossible.
Out of curiosity, Farkas asked the colleague what they thought was impossible.
“This person had said to me that they felt like commitment to host these town hall meetings, was not just impossible but insane,” Farkas recalled.
“And I asked them why and they walked me through and said, ‘do you not realize how dangerous it is to stand in front of an audience and you’re going to give the audience the microphone.’”
He said the unexpected questions can make a politician come away better than they were before.
“Just because somebody asks you tough questions doesn’t mean that they don’t want you to succeed,” he said.
The right forum for political discourse?
Neither Farkas nor Gondek believes social media is a great place for good political dialogue.
Both also said candidates need to meet the public where they are – including Reddit forums.
Farkas warned, though, that candidates must get their feedback from a variety of sources.
“If you do make the mistake of assuming that social media represents all of the city or society that that would be a very big mistake,” he said.
Gondek said nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation. Online conversations often miss the nuances, she said.
“The art of conversation is rooted in nuances that just can’t be captured in social media,” she said.
Still, the AMA conversations are popular. A typical, high-engagement post might get 100 comments, u/janearcade said. The Gondek AMA had near 500, she said. People are still commenting on the Farkas AMA thread.
“Which is another thing that I really liked about reddit AMA is that… people can go back and still discuss with other people the responses or reread them,” she said.
The invitations to other candidates are out there. Many have responded and set up their AMA times.
They tell the candidates that moderators are watching, so they don’t get abused.
It’s a matter of setting up an account, they announce the date and when the time arrives, the questions begin.
u/janearcade said it’s been a lot of work setting it up, but well worth it.
“I took on the whole thing just because I was like, I want to know what these candidates are thinking,” she said.
And she figured Calgary redditors would want to know, too.
Future mayoral AMAs
Teddy Ogbonna: Tuesday, September 14, 7:30 – 8:30 pm.
Brad Field: Wednesday, September 15, 12 – 1 p.m.
Jan Damery: Thursday, September 16, 7:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Jeff Davison: Tuesday, September 29, 7 – 8 p.m.