Reader comments on the transit plan

Stuart Parker wrote a great article about the dynamics and strategy of the upcoming transit tax plebiscite in B.C. This is my quick analysis of reader comment discussion on CBC and what it shows about No supporters there.

The vote is about whether to pay for transportation improvements (including transit, roads and bike routes) with a 0.5% sales tax. I have argued that this isn’t really about transit: it’s about what kind of city we want to live in, and supporters need to communicate that vision to voters. On Gordon Price’s blog I argued for a positive message. One of my suggestions was not to hide the cost, but to own it: building a city means pitching in, making sacrifices and commitments.

Parker says this positive messaging won’t work. His experience is that voters in B.C. referendums always choose the option that they perceive as punishing the elites. Cynical that politics can achieve anything positive, they vote against, not for; to win the plebiscite, the Yes side needs to understand this anger and harness it. I won’t get into the situation in more detail here.

I study reader comments, and I participate in them. Though they are widely viewed as the cesspools of the Internet, it is there that I read things that give me tremendous optimism and hope. Even when they are bad, hateful, or wrong they force one to acknowledge the power of ideas we might rather not hear about.

I have been reading what CBC commenters have to say about the transit tax. They are not uplifting. I have been beginning to wonder whether a positive communication strategy could work. Then I read Parker’s analysis; it explains perfectly what I have been seeing.

First, to the significance of reader comments: In 2010, Pew found that significantly more Americans commented on news in comments (25%) than via social media (17%) or Twitter (3%). CBC reports that three quarters of their readers read the comments while about a third have commented at some point.

Comments are not representative. If they were, the Conservatives would not have won the last federal election. But they do show what narratives and arguments are out there and provide hints about their relative effectiveness. Examined over time they could potentially reveal changes in popular views.

Data & analysis

Last Sunday, CBC published a story about harmonizing the transit tax. In the reader poll attached to the story, 27% supported the tax while 66% opposed it.

Comments were even more strongly against. In a random sample of 30, 16 were against compared to 3 for. Comparison with the poll results suggests volume of comments is a poor indicator of the views of the readership. After all, most comments are motivated by disagreement with whatever they are responding to. Happy readers have little to say.

Still, four of the 10 most prolific commenters (including me) were in favor; we wrote 64 comments. The other six were against and wrote 93. Probably the top-rated Yes comment rates +4 (one of those votes is probably mine), with a rebuttal rated +8. One should expect fewer votes for replies: this result is consistent with the poll, pointing to opinion running worse than 2:1 against.

Why? All of the 34 comments with the highest rating are opposed. Targets of criticism or blame are: Translink (16), the province/Liberals (8); the mayors (1); other elites, including “smug Vancouverites” (5). Complaints include “hideous service,” “that scam called a zone system,” “jaunts overseas,” “the improvements dont go far enough,” “Port Mann bridge tolls,” a truncated Broadway subway for the wealthy(!). Elsewhere there are criticisms that it hurts the poor and that it subsidizes riders. As Stuart says, the No side makes strange bedfellows.

Two particularly bizarre top complaints stand out. “I live in Courtenay, will I be able to claim an exemption for any purchases I make in the Lower Mainland?” (+8), and “More taxes and there are no public washrooms?” (+9). In a story the next day a comment blamed Translink for a run of red traffic lights (+15). A reply elaborated: it does not matter whether they are Translink’s jurisdiction because synchronizing them would be a cheap alternative for reducing congestion.

These are rationalizations, not reasons. That does not make them wrong (many of the complaints are valid): it points to a deeper underlying motivation. People want to say No and are piling on justifications for that choice. They are angry; my impression is that positive claims only make them angrier.

I remain ambivalent because I don’t know how widespread the No views are. I do not know the representativeness or demographics of these discussion participants. A few angry commenters (most of the 134 participants in that discussion) are not that important. There are other people who are reading but not writing; perhaps they do not react the same way. But mightn’t that show up in the ratings?

I think a big part of the challenge is to get out the Yes vote, which I suspect is prevalent among a younger demographic who tend to stay home. They need to feel committed enough to act. Even if there are many opponents, focusing on them may be a misdirection of resources: just as with climate change (which CBC commenters generally don’t buy), where efforts to convert deniers has detracted from the more productive task of mobilizing supporters.

It seems to me to be easy enough to go full negative and blame politicians for this mess. I have done a little of that myself. Blaming them is fair in the narrow sense that they are responsible, but unhelpful in the sense that the pursuit of utopia only takes us away from the work of real politics. The problem I see is how to go negative without contributing to neoliberal efforts to undermine faith in the potential of collective action.