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When Tweets defeat candidates: Q&A with Ala Buzreba

Ala Buzreba spoke with Metro about the backlash, double-standards and how shamings like hers could stifle youth from entering politics.

Ala Buzreba.


Ala Buzreba.

By now there are simply too many campaigns to name that have been ended by the Ghost of Social Media Past. But it's hard to think of a Canadian politician who's endured a public shaming as cruel as Ala Buzreba's.

The Liberal Party candidate in Calgary Nosehill recently resigned after inappropriate tweets she wrote in her mid-teens were unearthed and used like digital pitchforks to chase her out of the race. Many within the social media mob fixated on her gender, Arab ethnicity and Muslim faith. "Such a cute little terrorist" goes a typical comment.

Compare this too William Moughrabi, the Montreal Conservative candidate, who is also Arab. He didn't endure any bigoted backlash following revelations of inappropriate Facebook comments he'd made at nearly twice the age Buzreba was when she made hers.

Numerous studies, some as old as Facebook itself, have shown that women and feminine usernames incur anywhere from two to 25 times more trolling, threatening or sexual harassment than their male or masculine counterparts. The 20-year-old community volunteer, University of Calgary student and Alberta Young Liberals executive, says she's dealt with trolls since her social justice passions drove her to online forums and Twitter in junior high.

Last June, shortly after announcing her candidacy, Buzreba learned that a blogger had photoshopped and spread pornographic images of her being penetrated by Justin Trudeau. Sun Media columnist Tarek Fatah also equated her hijab with ISIS-support. What followed with the scandal was merely a crescendo of the racism and sexism she suffered.

Buzreba spoke with Metro about the backlash, double-standards and how shamings like hers could stifle youth from entering politics.

How has the scandal affected you?

The backlash is continuing to this day. People are mean to me and it's affecting my personal life. I've been kicked out of different organizations and clubs that I was a part of. I've had ex-supervisors disassociate with me.

When was the first time you were trolled online?

I was really interested in debate since the time I was 13 or 14. I would go online, read the news, look at what people are saying. I was in the "comments" section a lot, fighting back to people who were constantly belittling people like me — Muslim women. But I debate in a nice way; I don't look for fights.

Tweets like "Your mother should have used a coat hanger" don't sound nice. What were you responding to?

"The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim," was one. At some point, you just throw it back at them. They don't like their own medicine. People called me "Muslim trash," "freeloader of the Liberal government." My hijab was always the focus. People are terrified of it.

It was only a year ago you told Jewish-Canadian pundit Ezra Levant to "Pack up and leave to Israel." Why'd you tweet that?

He had said something on the radio like, "Remember, this is Canada, not Gaza." I couldn't believe radio stations would (broadcast) his racist ad. Then I tweeted back. I knew about Ezra, because he'd attacked two people I went to school with, so stupid me for saying anything.

Do you admit your comment was at least equally racist?

Not equally. It was rude. It wasn't nice. But I didn't tell him to "go back to Israel." I told him to go there. I didn't even know where he's from.

Before the scandal, pornographic pictures of you were photoshopped and spread online by a blogger. How'd you respond?

He wasn't the only one. There was a lot a of photoshopped stuff. I was embarrassed to even tell anybody because I didn't want them to see the photos. We reported it to Facebook and Facebook said it's freedom of expression.

Did you ever grow numb to it?

No. It hurts every time. But the blows loosen the more you get it. If anything all the rude comments I got when I was younger helped me grow and develop some tough skin.

Do you think you can return to politics?

Yes. I have more to see and more to learn. I want to change how Canadian politics operates and I want more women and young people voting. It was exciting to have so many of my friends come out to volunteer politically for their first times.

Can parties expect candidates with clean online records?

If they held the standard of being-perfect online, they'll have fewer and fewer candidates every year. The person you were on social media doesn't necessarily mean the person you're becoming or the person you are now. I go through my posts at age 13, and I think why did I post that — it was so lame. People change all the time.

What's your message to young potential candidates?

Be careful for what can be taken out of context. Be careful of people who just want a reaction out of you.

Note: The interview has been edited for size.

Haunted by the Ghost of Social Media Past

Malcolm Azania, NDP, 2004

In the dial-up internet days, the Edmonton candidate wrote that Jews were part of the "white supremacy" in an emailed debate unearthed a decade later. Azania presciently told CBC, "The internet is the most efficient technology in the universe to make a jackass out of yourself."

Ray Lam, BC NDP, 2009

The young candidate resigned after playful photos on Facebook transpired, including one where he was palming a woman's breast and another with his pants down. That he was gay or that it was Pride didn't matter to his opponents.

Allan Hunsperger, Alberta Wildrose, 2012

Not only did the pastor's blog damning gays "to eternity in a lake of fire" inspire the oft-used phrase "bozo eruptions," some argue it cost the Wildrose the election.

Deborah Drever, Alberta NDP, 2015

One inappropriate Facebook comment wasn't enough for the newly elected party to boot the 26-year-old, but a trail of media, including one in which she posed as a gang-rape victim for an album cover, definitely was.

William Moughrabi, Conservative Party, 2015

After year-old screenshots revealed Facebook comments like "Karma takes too long. I'd rather beat the s--t out of you now," the Montreal candidate quickly apologized and closed his online accounts. He's now perhaps the only major party can

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