Canadians’ tweets could violate 1930s law

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

Elections Canada, the non-partisan agency that conducts Canadian elections, has announced that it plans to enforce a ban on tweets about election results based on a provision in a 1930s election law designed to prevent news agencies from announcing results before all polls are closed.

The penalty for the 140-character offense? Up to $25,000 or 5 years in prison, according to Mashable.com. The original intent of the law was to prevent radio stations on the east coast from influencing voter turnout on the west coast, where polls close up to 4 and a half hours later.

Ottawa Citizen’s political commentator Kathryn Marshall questions the necessity of characterizing tweets and Facebook statuses as broadcasts. Does it matter, she asks, if the Facebook poster in question has 10 friends or 1,000? She notes that the “twitterverse” is planning a “tweet-in” of election results in protest.

Of course, in the U.S., with our First Amendment protections, no such law could hold water. And, yet, major broadcasters have long had a gentlemen’s agreement not to “call” a race until after all of the polls are closed. In presidential races, this has the effect of there being no clear winner until sometime after 9 p.m. Eastern Time. The idea is that if a news network in New York starts telling people in California that one candidate has won quite a few eastern states, those voters in California may be less interested in voting.

I’m not sure that me tweeting out 140-characters about voter turnout in Chillicothe, Ohio, has the same effect.

Besides the obvious free speech argument, Elections Canada has admitted that it is impossible to uniformly enforce this law with the resources that they have. Not being particularly familiar with the Canadian election system, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone would have any reliable information about winners and losers that doesn’t have access to a massive polling organization, like the Associated Press does here in the United States during our elections. Assuming that Canadian journalists work within the same ethical framework as American journalists, what exactly are they afraid people will announce?

Unfortunately, I can imagine that there are political strategists out there trying to figure out how and what to tweet on May 2nd to either encourage or discourage western province voters from going to the polls.

The issue of Twitter and the Canadian election may seem like a parody of the web age, but it does bring important questions to mind. Who is controlling the news now, and to what end?

In an age before twitter and Facebook, mainstream news organizations could collude together to keep a story out of the press. This was sometimes used for political reasons, but more often was used for valid reasons, such as the safety of journalists in war zones. Now that the mainstream media has lost this option, there are conceivably things that will get out that maybe shouldn’t have. Is this a necessary evil of a democratic World Wide Web? What are the alternatives?