Social media has become a battlefield in the run up to this month’s local elections, with candidates on all sides accusing opponents of dirty politics and smear campaigns.
Independents claim Rodney First members and supporters have been blocking them on dozens of community Facebook pages, while Rodney First accuses opponents of orchestrating an organised vendetta against them.
Speaking in the public forum at the final Rodney Local Board meeting of the current term, independent Kumeu candidate Steven Law raised questions over members’ influence on social media.
“Does the board or any member have any power or control over the campaigns of prospective board members and, if so, what?” he asked. “What can be done about candidates and supporters having membership, comments or posts blocked off the public arena by them, board members and their associates?”
He was referring to the fact that Deputy Board chair Phelan Pirrie is an admin or moderator on at least 20 local community Facebook pages right across Rodney, from Snells Beach to South Head, and he claimed after the meeting to have been blocked or had comments removed from many of them since becoming a candidate. Additionally, Board chair Beth Houlbrooke is an admin on five groups in the Warkworth area.
Road campaigner Geoff Upson, who is also standing in Kumeu, said he had been blocked by the majority of local Facebook groups in his area, claiming that Mr Pirrie being an admin was a common thread, and that all Rodney First candidates had also blocked him.
“Before I announced I was going to run, I was a member of all of these groups,” he said. “After a while, I realised I wasn’t hearing anything from these areas. When I search for them now, they don’t even show up.”
Mr Upson said he didn’t blame Mr Pirrie for being involved in so many groups, but found it frustrating that it wasn’t out in the open.
Warkworth independent Steven Garner thought that Board members being admins of a significant number of community pages could be seen as a conflict of interest.
“There is a definite bent towards Rodney First on these pages and when you multiply this by the total number of members of these Facebook groups, then the influence is significant,” he said.
Mr Pirrie would not say exactly how many Facebook groups or pages he was an admin for, or whether he saw any ethical issues in administering community pages as a Deputy Board chair. However, he vehemently denied that it was an issue, saying the claims were completely groundless and it was nonsense that he and others were somehow controlling Facebook in Rodney.
He said he had blocked Geoff Upson from posting on his (Mr Pirrie’s) personal Facebook page to prevent Mr Upson “stalking him” online and being tagged in Mr Upson’s posts, some of which Mr Pirrie said were defamatory. Steven Law had been removed from a Muriwai & Waimauku Facebook group, but this had happened in April last year for “continually posting inflammatory material against the group’s rules despite being cut considerable slack”.
“I’ve been accused of being corrupt, of genocide and of lining my pockets on social media, and I’ve just had to rise above it. It’s really sad that the election has been turned into a mud-slinging match by people who don’t know how to behave civilly on social media,” Mr Pirrie said.
Beth Houlbrooke said the handful of groups she administered were only ever designed to keep residents informed.
“We wanted to be good communicators and for people to be able to understand the role of the Local Board, and have their say,” she said. “They were set up as virtual community noticeboards, for anyone to use. We didn’t start them with any kind of intention to take control.”
She said Rodney First had been the subject of unjustified mudslinging and dirty politics by a team of independent candidates and their backers.
“The only motivation I can see is our opponents don’t like the transport targeted rate. So, let’s have a proper debate about the issue and they can tell us what they’re offering. Are they going to cancel it?
What’s their solution? That’s the debate they should be having.
“When I went into the election, I expected to have to debate issues, but not this sort of stuff. I’ve never seen it before, it’s just vile.”