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Something very interesting happened yesterday.
I'm a strong advocate for people getting participating in the election process -- whether it be at a central or local level. Unless folk take the time to consider the options and cast their vote from a position of awareness and understanding then the whole concept of democracy becomes an illusion.
To this end, I have fomented discussion on the various issues and candidates that affect locals in the South Waikato district, primarily using the community's most popular Facebook (ugh!) group. This page is called "The Genuine Tokoroa Page" (GTP)and boasts over 15,000 members -- not bad for a town with a population of about the same.
Clearly, if you want to engage with the community, this is the place to do it.
Unfortunately, there's a bit of a problem.
Like all Facebook groups, there are admins who have the power to do almost anything. In most groups, such admins are simply there to maintain order, prevent spamming and ensure that people comply with the guidelines or rules that have been laid down by Facebook and the group's creators.
In the case of the GTP, things are a little different, in a very worrying way.
The published page description proudly claims that it is for "Any news, photos, anything at all to do with Tokoroa". Sadly, this description is a fraudulent one and that's where the danger lies.
Now you'd think, with a description like that, people would be free to post almost anything that wasn't illegal, offensive or breached laws such as copyright.
You'd be wrong.
In order to create a greater awareness of the upcoming elections and to get people involved, I started out by posting a video created with the help of a few special effects. This video poked some gentle (inoffensive) fun at some of the election hordings that had been erected around the town.
Although the posting and the video received a significant number of "likes" and clearly achieved the goal of getting people talking and engaged with the upcoming election... it, and all the resulting discussions, were deleted without notice by the admins.
Well it seems to me (and a number of others I've spoken with) that one or more of the admins are very strong supporters of the local Mayor (who is running unopposed) and the small team of councilors which appear to some to represent an "inner circle" of power.
It appears that anything which possibly challenges the continuation of that inner circle is liable to summary removal.
This is not the first time I've had VFX videos removed by the admins. Just a few weeks previous I'd posted a video in which I inserted a fictional wooden structure into the front of town. For those who are unaware, the front of Tokoroa is being "revitalised" in a $4m project that has been a complete dog's breakfast right from the start and which perfectly demonstrates how inept this council is at handling such projects. As with virtually every major project in the past decade, this revitalisation has gone over-budget, over-time and is failing to deliver on its promises.
So, for a bit of a laugh I decided to highlight the folly by doing the VFX video and creating a virtual wooden tower in the middle of it.
Whilst most got the joke and the video was well-received by the community, one or two poor souls actually thought it was real -- and the local council itself complained that this was deceptive. I can only assume that shortly afterwards, the word came down from on-high and the admins deleted the post and all the comments it created.
No sense of humour eh?
But it was the events of yesterday that concern me most.
On Saturday I received an electioneering pamphlet in my mailbox from one of the candidates. This professionally printed document on glossy paper contained the candidate's picture and four short paragraphs containing statements obviously designed to induce voters to cast their ballot in that candidate's favour.
I was shocked and dismayed to see that in a document so brief, there were so many spelling and grammar mistakes.
Seriously, here's someone begging for permission to govern a district and effectively determine its future for at least the next three years -- and they can't even be bothered to either use a spell-checker or get someone to proof-read their material before spending good money to have it printed?
It was even more worrying when one of the claims made by the candidate was that they would consult with others when there was something that was outside their own scope of knowledge or understanding.
Hypocritical much? Can't spell but can't be arsed to consult a spell-checker or get your pitch proofed by someone who can?
Now some might think this is a petty thing but I believe it's an important one. We can't judge new candidates by what they say -- because talk is very, very cheap and, let's face it, they all make the same promises. Based on previous experience, most of those who do get elected soon forget those promises and do whatever they hell they want, with scant regard to the needs, wishes or best interests of those who elected them.
Case in point -- that redevelopment of town I was talking about. Those councilors who promised to represent voters and consult with the community gave us three options for a new town frontage and the community chose one of those options. What we are ending up with is not that choice -- in fact it's an option that was never even proposed during the "consultation" period. See what I mean?
Anyway, I saw this primary-school-level piece of prose to be a great opportunity to once again try and get the community engaged with the election process so I posted a comment in which I outlined the issues with it. I took great care not to identify the candidate because what I wanted was for people (most of who probably just threw this piece of paper in the rubbish without a second glance) to go back and read what was on it (as they tried to spot the mistakes).
Let's face it, 90% of people ignore this electioneering mail-spam anyway but I figured that curiosity might get the better of some so they'd try to figure out who the candidate was by reading all the stuff that had turned up in their mailbox and, in the process, they'd become aware of what these people were promising -- all the better that they could be held to account if they failed to deliver.
Well as expected, my post to the page produced a lot of comment -- some positive, some negative (which is great -- people were talking and engaging).
Then the post and all its comments was removed and I was slapped with a ban.
Hang on... what's going on here?
Well it turns out that the candidate involved (who I didn't identify) is one who was endorsed by her worship The Mayor early on. In my honest opinion, she has groomed him to run for council because he's one of her fanbois and will simply do whatever he's told to do and vote whatever way "the inner circle" directs him to.
Was a directive issued from on-high to the admins of this community page to strike out anything that might compromise his chances of election?
I have no way of knowing... but I do know that posts referencing media reports which painted this candidate in a bad light were also deleted when made by other members of the group.
So why is this a concern?
Well if you think about it, we have a community page that professes to allow the posting of anything and which regularly features postings that contain quite significant levels of profanity (F... C... etc) that are left untouched by admins. On the face of it, you migh think it is true to its description -- but it's not. It would very much appear to me that the admins exercise their power to delete and ban based on their own unstated agendas and beliefs or perhaps directives "from on high". Given that most other users of the group are likely unaware of this, the result is the shaping of minds and opinions through the careful covert filtering of information.
When such a page has a membership that is equal to the entire population of a town, that is a very, very dangerous thing and threatens to subvert the whole premise on which free and open democratic elections are held.
Anyone who expects the page to represent all sides of a debate or to be a fair and balanced collection of opinions and facts will be grossly mislead. How can they cast a fair vote if the information and discussion is so heavily censored in favour of a small group of candidates in this way?
In the interests of fairness and an open, honest election, I had intended to interview all the local candidates on camera (asking them all the same questions) and then upload those interviews to this page but it is blatantly clear that this would have been an exercise in futility. I have little doubt that even these videos would have been curated by the admins in such a way that "the inner circle" was promoted and outsiders were strangely missing.
Perhaps now I'm really starting to see why Tokoroa is a town that will never reach its full potential... at least not while such things persist and we end up with councils like the one that has held the district back for the past decade or more.
C'est la vie... you get the government you deserve they say.
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