How a lone-wolf operative is shaping Ontario’s political discourse

A day after it was announced that many of Ontario’s remaining community newspapers were being shut down, Jeff Ballingall was sitting in a downtown Toronto coffee joint explaining how he intended to step into the void.

This was preposterous, on its face. Mr. Ballingall has little experience in traditional media, nor interest in objective journalism. He’s a 32-year-old former political staffer and employee of the short-lived Sun News Network who now produces Facebook-friendly videos and memes, under the moniker Ontario Proud, which mostly just attack or mock Premier Kathleen Wynne and sometimes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Often that’s through crude caricatures, sometimes scarcely pegged to the news: Recent examples include a cartoon of Ms. Wynne literally burning money, and a photo of her walking through the snow with the caption “It’s so cold today, Wynne has her hands in her own pockets for once.”

But when it comes to how we get information in the digital age – the tone and tribalism of political discourse, who influences it and how, what it is likely to look like in this year’s Ontario election as well as campaigns nationwide – Mr. Ballingall’s claims can’t be dismissed out of hand. Working virtually alone, he is managing to simultaneously make a mockery of his province’s new electoral finance laws, and to demonstrate that there is a huge market here for the sort of bias-reinforcing social media content that has polarized electorates around the Western world.

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Those claims go well beyond finding an audience in abandoned readers of the 36 publications shuttered by Postmedia and Torstar. He also boasts his content “outperforms major media outlets” and attracts more eyeballs than what is put out by “all the [provincial] political parties combined,” being seen by millions each week with minimal ad spending.

Mr. Ballingall’s braggadocio requires a grain of salt; he is solely comparing social-media engagement, and political parties and media outlets reach Ontarians through plenty of other means.

But an ever-growing number of people have been getting information through Facebook. Last year, Abacus Data reported that, according to its opinion research, 61 per cent of Canadian adults log into the social network daily – more than who watch TV news, visit news websites or read printed newspapers each day. Nearly half of those under the age of 30 told the research company that Facebook is where they learn first of breaking news.

This week, Facebook signalled it wants to scale back that aspect of its service, announcing that it will aim to put less professionally made media content in feeds, and prioritize posts that users share with each other and comment upon. That could put a dent in Mr. Ballingall’s ambitions. Or it could conceivably help him further realize them, as he continues to meet shareability demands better than traditional media are willing or able to do.

Mr. Ballingall has been recognized by other Canadian political operatives for mastering the algorithm that has been (and will remain, in some form) at the heart of Facebook’s business model.

“We all know it’s been designed to facilitate that you spend a lot of money on advertising,” said Joseph Lavoie, who, as Stephen Harper’s strategic communications director, oversaw digital communications in the Prime Minister’s Office. But after some early spending on paid ads, Mr. Ballingall has been generating Facebook numbers that Mr. Lavoie (a partner at Navigator Ltd., where Mr. Ballingall previously worked) called “genuinely organic” and “very impressive.”

Those numbers have played into the fears of some of Facebook’s increasingly vocal critics – people including University of British Columbia professor Taylor Owen, who said Ontario Proud “exemplifies” his concerns about a “general debasing of the political discourse.”

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The worry is not just about Mr. Ballingall’s content. It’s about how he has been leading the way in shaping where third-party involvement in this country’s elections is going – and potentially making that involvement more impactful, despite recent attempts to curb it.

Last year, Ontario passed legislation dramatically restricting how much outside groups can spend to influence campaigns, limiting them to $600,000 in the six months before elections and $100,000 during them. It was largely a response to complaints that seven-figure ad campaigns by unions attacking the opposition Progressive Conservatives had repeatedly given the governing Liberals an unfair advantage. Thus far, as with similar rules in other provinces and nationally, it appears to be stymieing that sort of traditional third-party effort, mostly reliant on television ads.

What the law’s crafters didn’t count on, or figured they couldn’t do much about, was that TV has gone from the only game in town to probably not even the best one. Advertising on Facebook is more narrowly targetable and cheaper. That’s assuming it’s paid advertising at all: Get enough traction, as Ontario Proud did, through an outlay of about $100,000 by Mr. Ballingall’s telling, and much of a third party’s content will be shared among users for free. (He has not specified where his initial funding came from.)

Or, at least it will if that third party proves willing and able to produce a type of content that gets traction on Facebook.

Mr. Ballingall is pretty much the only person in Ontario who fits the bill. He is joined, in other provinces, by similarly named operations – Alberta Proud, B.C. Proud – targeting centre-left governments or parties. (He has described people running the other groups as friends but denied formal links.) But he is likely to inspire imitators who, as with him, want to help defeat politicians they dislike, and make a name and a salary (from solicited donations) in the process.

Unless Facebook is set on truly tearing down the model that has made it one of the most valuable companies in the world, Mr. Ballingall’s formula – familiar to those who followed the last U.S. election – will be replicable.

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That formula relies upon giving Facebook’s algorithm what it craves: strong reactions.

To this point, at least, those reactions need not be positive ones; what matters is that users signal that a post has captured their attention. The precise mechanics of the algorithm remain a company secret. So far as anyone can tell, every like, dislike, comment or share counts as “engagement,” as does clicking on a post or watching a video for more than a few seconds, and each boosts the odds that the same or related content will turn up in other feeds.

So, to understand how Ontario Proud’s content was seen by 6.3 million Facebook users in a single week last month – not necessarily clicked upon, but appearing in their field of vision – it helps to know that, in the same week, its 40 posts registered 1.4 million engagements. (How many were within Ontario is unclear.) Each week, those numbers feed off each other: more views leading to more engagements, and vice versa.

Sometimes, Mr. Ballingall builds his numbers through shareable content that is apolitical – jokey memes about the recent spell of frigid weather, for instance. That’s to supplement the political attacks that are his bread and butter.

When Mr. Ballingall describes the key to his anti-Wynne or anti-Trudeau messaging as “going for things that are topical, that promote an emotive response, and that matter to people,” it sounds like Political Messaging 101. But, as with any effective third party, he’s doing something the folks seeking election avoid.

The way he explains it, parties are too risk-averse to produce stuff that will get people scrolling through their feeds to stop and pay attention. “On political campaigns I’ve worked on, everything has to go through a process, and any creative idea you have, by the time it’s gone up the chain of command, it’s either squashed or watered down to the point of obsolescence.”

A more generous explanation is that parties try to present a modicum of respect for each other. Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown is not about to put his name behind a comedy troupe’s rap video in which a Kathleen Wynne impersonator robs a “Joe Schmoe;” or a “Nightmare before Christmas” take in which Ontarians, sleepless because of their hydro bills, are alarmed to find Ms. Wynne on their lawn – both of which were pushed by Ontario Proud.

“If any one party gets caught making a mistake that’s seen as childish or inappropriate, that could cost them the entire election,” said Mr. Lavoie, the former Harper communications adviser. A third party has “much more flexibility to play with emotional levers.”

Not that the provincial Tories are exactly disavowing Mr. Ballingall’s content, with a spokesperson for Mr. Brown suggesting its traction is a manifestation of Ontarians’ frustration with the Liberals.

As for how exactly all that traffic he’s getting is supposed to contribute to the Liberals’ defeat, part of it is mobilization. Ontario Proud’s Facebook page has more than 300,000 followers, with thousands more each week. Mr. Ballingall has already experimented with generating real-life protests around Ms. Wynne’s events, and closer to the election will try to help with getting out the vote. Toward that end he is using the campaign software Nation Builder to amass a database loaded with his followers’ contact details – information he could also leverage in future campaigns, such as leadership contests, to make himself more of a player.

But the bigger part, when it comes to the imminent race in Ontario at least, is about shaping the narrative.

Mr. Ballingall’s hope is to make it harder for Ms. Wynne to rebuild her poor image or change the channel, because many voters will see more of his content than anyone else’s. He’s not talking about “all-day news junkies like myself or people who are buying a newspaper every day,” concentrated heavily in downtown Toronto. His targets are “people who passively consume the news” – those who may have turned away from local newspapers even before they were shuttered, in favour of Facebook feeds.

Challenging opinions and assumptions is not what those feeds have been designed to do. Facebook has been giving users what it thinks they want, such as attacks on politicians it figures they already dislike, if those attacks get enough traction with other users. Mr. Ballingall, for one, seems to expect that, in future campaigns, politicians on all sides will have people like him trying to drive up the negatives, with more polarization as a result.

“I think that’s the way media is going. It’s going to get very, very tribal, with all these niche pages trying to reach niche audiences.”

Dr. Owen, much less sanguine about that prospect, is inclined to agree. He’s surprised, he said, that there hasn’t already been more such proliferation, and Mr. Ballingall pointing the way only makes it likelier.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lavoie wonders whether at a certain point the phenomenon could pose a challenge even to parties ostensibly having dirty work done for them. What will it mean for them if “an upstart which doesn’t have to worry about consequences at the ballot box” suddenly has the ear of so many of their supporters?

Over coffee, it was pointed out that many of the people Mr. Ballingall is reaching likely reside in ridings where the Liberals aren’t competitive. He replied that, as they struggle to adapt to their own campaign-finance legislation’s ban on corporate and union donations to parties, the Liberals could be heavily counting on a new per-vote subsidy to keep them afloat financially. Any votes against them, anywhere, will make that tougher.

“If they hemorrhage votes all over the province,” he said, “that’s going to cripple them after the election.”