This story originally ran in The Gauntlet, U of C’s student newspaper, on Sept. 3, 2015.
University of Calgary student and former Liberal candidate for Calgary Nose Hill Ala Buzreba is speaking out about the way she was treated after offensive tweets she posted as a 17-year-old resurfaced online. Prior to stepping down, 21-year-old Buzreba was one of the youngest candidates in the federal election.
In one of the deleted tweets, which surfaced in mid-August, Buzreba tells a Twitter user to “go blow your brains out you waste of sperm.” In another, she tells a pro-Israel activist: “your mother should have used that coat hanger.”
Buzreba released a statement on Aug. 18 apologizing for the tweets and indicating she would step down as a candidate after the controversy became a national news story.
When the tweets first became public, Buzreba thought she would be able to continue her candidacy.
“It was only after a couple of hours [that] I realized this was getting bigger than I ever thought it would be. I was getting a lot of backlash from people,” Buzreba said.
According to Buzreba, personal attacks as a result of the tweets played a large role in her decision to step down.
“I was already getting enough hate after I was nominated,” Buzreba said. “I knew I’d have to deal with it day in and day out for the rest of the campaign trail and I didn’t think I could.”
While Buzreba said her tweets were ignorant, misinformed and rude, she does not believe she was treated fairly, as the attacks went far beyond criticisms of her past social media use.
“I wasn’t just being picked on for what I said, I mean people were saying ‘oh you’re an ugly bitch too,’” Buzreba said.
Buzreba thinks there is a simple explanation for why the backlash against her was so severe.
“I think it has everything to do with being a woman and a minority. Some of the comments had nothing to with what I said,” Buzreba said. “They were trying to tear me down for being a Muslim woman.”
U of C political science professor Melanee Thomas believes certain types of candidates are more likely to be brought down by their social media indiscretions.
“Typically, they fit a particular demographic,” Thomas said. “Usually we’re seeing candidates that are younger, they’re typically not white, and in the most recent cases in Alberta, they’re women.”
Thomas’ research focuses on women in politics and she teaches courses on voting behaviour and Canadian democracy. She argues that the presence of social media puts young people at a disadvantage when it comes to breaking into politics.
“Anybody who has the benefit of not having [social media] around when they were a teenager already has a leg up,” Thomas said. “Older bigots get to be bigots in ways that are difficult to shine lights on.”
Thomas cited one study from the early 2000s that found women need to be asked an average of 14 times to be political candidates before they agreed. She suspects the scrutiny placed on social media makes political candidacies even less attractive for women.
“If you still had to push historically underrepresented groups that hard to get them to take that public step, I would imagine that this only adds extra hurdles,” Thomas said.
Buzreba has seen these effects first hand.
“I did hear from a couple of friends saying ‘yeah that’s kind of the reason I don’t want to enter politics,’” Buzreba said.
Despite this, she hopes young people can learn from her mistakes and continue participating in politics.
“My public doom does not have to be the norm. I think people should continue to get involved in politics regardless of how old you are. Just make sure that you’re being careful about what you’re saying,” Buzreba said.
While she said it was up to the public when people should be forgiven for past social media transgressions, she hopes perceptions will change.
“I wish the public would realize that people grow up. We are not the same as we are at 17,” Buzreba said. “What they said back then needs to be taken into context.”
Thomas thinks these stories will become more and more common as active social media users engage in politics. She hopes a conversation takes place on how to treat such incidents.
“I think it’s really important that we come up with norms about how we’re going to cover that — both as news and how we’re going to react as the general public,” Thomas said.
The Liberals currently don’t have a candidate nominated in the riding of Calgary Nose Hill. Junior cabinet minister Michelle Rempel is running for the Conservatives while middle-school teacher Bruce Kaufman will represent the NDP. The riding is thought to be a safe Conservative seat.