Marc Ellison developed a tool that "scrapes" the official Rob Ford Facebook page several times per day for comments deleted by his staffers. If you've ever wondered how a politician's social media image is manicured, this should provide some insight.
A crack pipe word cloud, because, why not?
The comments on the Facebook page of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are, on the whole, positive and congratulatory. Even in the wake of the ever-evolving Crackgate scandal, Fordites have been posting a plethora of supportive comments to the mayor’s wall:
“Rob. Hang on. you are doing the best job. We love you…Burden is on star to provide proof. There was no video released, so it does not exist. Not even short ten seconds teaser trailer. as to create attention. all this screams from pinkos are unsubstantinated. They have no video, you do not need to explain any further.”
“Mr ford I just want to say I have alot of respect for you and your visions for this great city of ours. Keep up the good work and remember there are alot of people rooting for you.”
It shouldn’t come as any surprise to you that the comments on the mayor’s Facebook page are heavily monitored and screened. For any high-profile politician, online comments are like town hall forums: they appear spontaneous but are actually highly choreographed. In the case of Ford’s Facebook page, negative comments are systematically cleansed from the mayor’s wall.
This practice came to my attention last week when Gawker first broke the Crackgate story. As the controversy reverberated throughout the digital space, I wanted to gauge Torontonians’ reactions. And what better place to share your support or dismay for your elected official than his public Facebook page? I noted a couple of particularly disparaging remarks about Mr. Ford and mentioned them to a friend in passing a couple of hours later.
When they tried to look them up, they’d already been deleted.
Now some of these comments are out-and-out personal attacks or abusive statements that the mayor’s office can arguably justify deleting from what is a key tool in the management of Mr. Ford’s public brand.
But in deleting negative comments more generally, isn’t the mayor projecting an image of overwhelming support that is misleading to the public who elected him in good faith?
So I decided to monitor exactly what Mr. Ford’s staff was deleting from his Facebook page. I programmed a webscraper utility (using the Python programming language and Facebook’s Graph API) that "scrapes" or scans this web page a few times a day. On its initial run this computer code created a copy of all comments and inserted them into a database. On subsequent runs, the same code looks for new comments—but more importantly—checks that each comment stored in the database is also still on the latest scanned copy of the Facebook page. If it’s not, that comment is marked as having been deleted.
But enough of my nerd-speak—what are the comments that Ford’s staff didn’t think you should see?
The results, below, are from a ‘live’ and real-time stream of the censored comments. This feed is automatically refreshed several times a day.
Since the creation of my FordScraper on May 20—just one week ago—more than 70 comments have been removed from Mayor Ford’s Facebook page.
That’s an average of ten comments a day—including the weekend—being deleted.
This figure could well be greater but, because the webscraper is only run a few times a day, it’s possible a comment is posted and deleted before the code is next run.
Nonetheless, these deletions illustrate the extent to which resources are being utilized to protect the mayor’s public image.
Rob Ford with a finger puppet? via
However, there seems to be little consistency in the censorship policy, and it’s unclear who decides which comments should be removed. Comments don’t seem to be confined to the internet’s trash just for being partisan or vulgar. Rather it seems comments from varying classes of Facebook user are deleted:
“Ford if you ever need some defiant City Council members roughed up you let me know.”
“Mr Ford, you are a great major but I think its time to pack it in or take the drug tests and sue the life out of the star. I think you have enough support to raise some funds for legal fees”
“positive public role model? HA! You can be in a seat of power while hanging out doing drugs with drug dealers, gangsters and thieves. Wow what a positive message for the kids. He's in the public spotlight which means he is held to a high standard to represent himself and the city. Next you'd say if he raped someone or molested a child it wouldn't matter so long as he does a good job as mayor. ludicrous!”
“Resign Rob... and cut your losses.”
“why doesnt the mayor comply with a blood test, urine , or even offer hair (maybe not) and put all this to rest??????”
“If Mayor Rob Ford was a crack addict you would not see him for days. But as it stands he is seen doing one thing or another. He would not be a functioning mayor and he would be slimmer than he is. Sorry about that but its very true. Someone wants to cause issues to force him to resign.”
“CRACK IS WHACK!”
“crack is actually a pretty old invention.”
“Even if the crack story turns out to be a total hoax, how do you explain the rest of these mishaps?”
This exercise opens a debate on a gray area of social media: should critical comments be deleted from the Facebook or Twitter accounts of a publicly elected official? The town hall forum aside, social media is one of the only direct ways dissatisfied Torontonians can voice their frustrations with and support for Ford’s leadership.
And yet this public record is sanitized on a daily basis—one Facebook user was even reportedly banned from Mr. Ford’s page—prompting the question of whether or not citizens deserve greater transparency when it comes to the social media profiles of their elected officials.
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