Trolling might be fun. But it isn't campaigning.


The Wellington Mayoral election was a week ago today. Having spent the past few months volunteering for my friend of two decades, Nick Leggett, it was a blow that he lost — but hardly a surprise.

Ours was an audacious effort. Nick was an outsider — a mayor from another city against an incumbent deputy with the backing of not one, but two, political parties in Labour and the Greens, both powerful forces in the capital. The council-wide results made clear Wellington voters wanted continuity over change. We were on the wrong side of that equation, something we knew from the outset was the most likely of all possible outcomes.

There are zero grounds for bitterness. We did our best. Nick campaigned with dignity and purpose, and everybody involved with the campaign can hold their heads up high. It is impossible to replicate in a few short months the advantages of a ready-made political machine, but Nick nonetheless attracted many hard-working volunteers who impressed with their passion and work ethic. And they were gracious to a fault when the results came in.

To his credit Justin Lester, who won comfortably in the end, ran a good campaign. His team skillfully managed to create the impression of distance between him and the deeply unpopular Celia Wade-Brown — not an easy task. Kudos to them.

But there is one aspect of the campaign that left me worried.

In the months leading up to the election, a number of Young Labor activists organised themselves into a troll army. Seemingly without relent, they inundated Twitter, Facebook and Reddit with vile, invariably baseless, personal attacks on Nick. Far worse, they aimed their vitriol at Porirua, where Nick had been serving as Mayor.  Porirua, they claimed days before the city received a AA rating from Standard & Poors, was broke (false). Rates had skyrocketed under Nick's leadership (false). Services had been slashed (false). Nick closed Cannons Creek pool (go there for yourself; he didn't). Most revealing was their constant, condescending refrain that Nick was somehow selfishly "abandoning" the city, as if Porirua residents are incapable of taking care of themselves. A heady blend of dog-whistling and white man's burden bollocks.

Now, please don't get me wrong. These thousands of nasty tweets and posts and comments did not shift a single vote. The vast majority of voters wouldn't have had a clue what was being said in social media swamps, and are smart enough to ignore it if they had.

But what concerns me is not only that young political activists seem to think trolling of this kind is acceptable; it's that it seems to be the only mode of political engagement they know.

Certianly, my early years in political campaigns weren't all sweetness and light. I tore down signs, wrote hyperbolic, dishonest direct mail letters, made countless bogus talkback calls. Youthful exuberance is not always easy to contain, much less channel productively.

But at least our manic energy was directed outwards — towards voters.

The trolls who made a sport of vilifying Nick (who, by the way, ignored all of it) confuse shouting invective in an echo chamber with campaigning. Not only is it bad for our political discourse to have young people so eager to propagate lies and insults; it augurs badlyfor Labour's electoral prospects to have a coming generation of activists and MPs who think abusing is campaigning. If they had knocked on one door for every nasty tweet, Lester would have won by more.

The trolls themselves can't be blamed entirely. Andrew Little himself personally attacked Nick, calling him a right-winger, falsely claiming his campaign manager was a high-profile ACT Party member. Another senior frontbencher breathlessly lied to the gallery behind the scenes about the state of Porirua's finances. When Young Labour activists witness this from senior leadership, it's not altogether surprising they come to think replicating that modus operandi online is a good use of their time.

When I chatted after the election with one of Lester's campaign team about the troll problem, an especially distasteful tweet was deleted within minutes. Certainly we had no trouble maintaining such discipline in the Leggett camp, despite all the provocation.

I hope this isn't an irreversible trend in New Zealand politics. If it is, you ain't seen nothing yet when it comes to turnout. Voters don't want a bar of this stuff, and don't confuse their disengagement with apathy. It's disgust.

Social media can be great fun, and I rarely go ten minutes without checking my often feisty Twitter feed. But let's not kid ourselves. Accosting adversaries from the safety of our iPhones, however viscerally satisfying, achieves nothing beyond reassuring us and those around us of our superior virtue