It’s around dinnertime in a downtown Calgary bar, and Jeff Ballingall is boasting. He’s taken a break from his stomping grounds in Ontario to attend Stampede, Calgary’s great, rowdy cowboy costume party and rodeo. Earlier in the day, he’d seen Alberta’s NDP premier Rachel Notley go by in the Stampede’s parade. He booed. (A member of the premier’s staff said she didn’t hear any boos.) He seems to take pride in riling up a crowd.
Ballingall is the force behind Ontario Proud, a conservative-leaning Facebook group. It is not formally affiliated with the Progressive Conservative Party—or any political organ—but, in only two years, it has developed an audience large enough that the group can credibly claim to be as influential as many mainstream news outlets on social media. (Ballingall himself has not been shy about taking a slice of the credit for helping to defeat Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne during the last Ontario election.) CBC Toronto is liked by about 150,000 people on Facebook; Ontario Proud—run by Ballingall, a video editor, an intern, a few freelancers, and a junior consultant—has been liked by more than 390,000, and its content reliably racks up hundreds more comments, likes, and shares than the news stories posted by established outlets.
Although the group’s real-world influence is difficult to quantify, Ballingall will happily supply engagement statistics that he says suggest Ontario Proud’s easy, memetic content is reaching millions of people. It has ambitions to reach many millions more. Ballingall plans to expand his model and says he is working with teams in Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec to form similar groups. Already, he has set his sights on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Ballingall created Ontario Proud in 2016, loosely modelling it after similar Facebook page Alberta Proud. A lifelong conservative with links to right-wing politicians, parties, and media outlets, Ballingall was sick of risk-averse political campaigns and political jobs that didn’t allow him to connect with voters on social media. Creating his own Facebook page, by comparison, gave him control. Finally, he could talk about the things that made him passionate, the things that inspired his “visceral” hatred for the Ontario Liberals—their coziness in office, poor fiscal management, and all-around patronizing airs. (The Ontario Liberals were beset by scandals in the years leading up to their defeat. One example: David Livingston, a former chief of staff to then premier Dalton McGuinty, was recently sentenced to four months in jail for wiping government computers in connection with the cancellation of gas-fired power plants in 2011.)
To Ballingall’s delight, the page took off. “It was just easy, easy, easy,” he says, adding that he thinks the Liberal Party has no real ideological convictions and would have said simply anything to retain power. “People were so hungry for it. They were so angry about their hydro bills and so angry about Liberal corruption, and so it was like a breath of fresh air.”
Raised in sarnia, Ontario, Ballingall studied political science at Western University while working in the Canadian Armed Forces as a reservist. “I then decided that the lack of sleep and hardships involved in the military were not as fun as politics,” he says. In 2007, he worked on contract for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation; it was an election year, and his duties included chasing Ontario’s then premier, Dalton McGuinty, while wearing a Pinocchio costume. Similar work followed, but eventually, Ballingall says, “I realized that I hated being a political staffer. Working on political campaigns is one of the most aggravating experiences….There are so many idiots….You have to work under people who are so risk averse.”
After a year of travelling, he came back to work at Toronto city hall, and then to the fledgling and doomed Sun News Network, headed by Kory Teneycke—who would later go on to become Doug Ford’s campaign manager in the 2018 Ontario election. At Sun News, Ballingall worked as a multimedia producer and learned the art of the tabloid. He possesses the rare editor’s knack for striking a nerve, one that has translated seamlessly to social media. “I was good at Facebook,” he says. “[Sun’s] TV station never got ratings, but we did really well online, so I knew there was a lot of appetite for what we were doing.”
Ontario Proud has been dismissed as a Progressive Conservative astroturfer: a third-party advertiser that deliberately mimics the aesthetics and style of grassroots activists. As such, it can easily flout notions of accountability that hem in political parties. (Ballingall disputes the characterization.) A third party, for example, can make misleading or inflammatory statements that a mainstream political party would consider too risky. Ontario Proud can call an NDP candidate a “nutjob” without fear that such incendiary language will reflect poorly on the Progressive Conservative Party.
Third-party advertisers run the gamut, from unions or advocacy groups like the Animal Alliance of Canada to the Canadian Nurses Association and the Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association. Many have a well-defined public face: unions have members and organizing committees; professional organizations generally publish staff and board lists. Ontario Proud’s financial records have not yet been made public. Ballingall says 1,300 donors both big and small have contributed funds to what was once an out-of-pocket bootstrap organization. A PowerPoint presentation leaked to The Walrus this summer showed that Ontario Proud was seeking $700,000 in funding to “inform,” “influence,” and “mobilize” voters ahead of the 2018 election—roughly the spending limit placed on third-party organizations in Ontario.
Much of the fear over third-party advertisers is exaggerated, argues Andrea Lawlor, a political-science professor at Kings University College at Western University. She says there actually aren’t very many third-party advertisers, and the ones that do exist aren’t necessarily effective at swaying elections. (The situation in Canada is in stark contrast to the United States, where political action committees and super PACs are both plentiful, enormously well funded, and play a much more prominent role in shaping public discourse.) But the role of third-party advertisers is starting to change with the rise of social media. “Now people are realizing they are getting more bang for their buck with online advertising,” Lawlor says. That allows relatively small advertising budgets to stretch further. “Twitter is free. Facebook is free. Only when groups are paying to place advertisements do we get into the zone of what’s regulated.”
In other words, a really savvy social-media manager who has a talent for the viral hit—someone like Jeff Ballingall—doesn’t have to spend very much money to influence and reach people. In a political and media landscape where cash is traditionally traded for attention, this gives groups like Ontario Proud an enormous advantage.
Ontario Proud’s success at navigating this new world may be notable, but Lawlor isn’t sure the group has influenced electoral outcomes—it seems better able to collect like-minded voters than to persuade its critics. “A lot of people simply don’t have the time…to spend reading through the news,” Lawlor says. “Social media and memes…can be used to stir up dissatisfaction with a particular party or candidate or leader. It can be used to engage in a more negative style of campaigning.”
The concern is that these groups create echo chambers that insulate the electorate from competing points of view, debasing the political process and creating shrill, clashing hordes that can’t find common ground.
“You won’t believe this crazy NDP Policy,” reads the title of one of Ontario Proud’s most popular videos. Ominous music plays over a series of stock videos and photography. “Andrea Horwath and the NDP will declare Ontario to be a sanctuary province,” reads a script onscreen. “It means anyone can illegally cross the Canadian border,” insists the clip, shifting to a video of a nurse’s station, “and get taxpayer-funded health care and social services in Ontario.” That video generated over 4,000 comments and 40,000 shares. Ballingall’s content generates enormous interest. It also generates a great deal of controversy among those who believe his wares are partisan, misleading, or outright racist.
Lawlor notes that Ontario Proud seems to produce two kinds of content. There are the benign, positive messages: “Like if you know who this is,” reads a message stamped on a picture of country singer Shania Twain. “Share if you’re proud she’s from Ontario.” But then there are much more pointed messages. Elsewhere on the Facebook page, a video—“Top 10 stupid things Justin Trudeau has done as PM (so far)”—which shows him dancing to bhangra music while wearing a kurta and notes his government’s payment to Omar Khadr.
Ballingall flatly denies that Ontario Proud is racist or consciously engages in dog-whistle politics. “We don’t talk about social issues, and I don’t talk about identity politics. I feel like a lot of people are just sick of that,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter where you are from, it doesn’t matter who you love. I think you have a place in Ontario Proud….[We are] talking about bills, about everyday concerns and debt and scandals and dishonesty.”
And memes that raise ire or concern about Ontario becoming a sanctuary province? Those have nothing to do with race, Ballingall says. “That has to do with making sure Ontarians of all backgrounds get the services that they need…that those who follow the rules are rewarded instead of people who break the rules.”
In the days after the mass shooting in Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood, Ontario Proud posted a set of pictures memorializing two young victims; an eighteen-year-old woman named Reese Fallon and ten-year-old girl Julianna Kozis. The young man responsible for the shooting was also found dead at the scene. He was described in the media as being of Pakistani origin, and in the aftermath of the violence, his parents released a statement noting that he had long suffered from “severe mental health challenges.” The top comment underneath that Ontario Proud post came from a Facebook user named Joe Lima: “Those people are, in my opinion, the problem we have in the world. They are the cancer that is spreading out of those countries. They are pouring into western countries and our sympathetic inept governments are allowing it to happen. When are they going to realize that those people are not like us, they have a seed of evil in their minds. It runs in their blood.”
Ballingall dismisses most of the criticism of Ontario Proud as politically motivated. “It’s only a problem now,” he says, “because we on the opposite side of the political spectrum got better at it….I believe we need more voices in politics—that conservatism needs voices and influences outside traditional parties and politicians.”
Ballingall and his message are getting louder and stronger. With little prompting, he pulls out his phone to show his latest stats. (He does this often.) Ontario Proud has had some of its best-ever weeks since the last Ontario election ended, he says. “In the last twenty-eight days, 17 million people reached. Post engagement up 101 percent since the election, post engagements 9.1 million!” With numbers like that, Ballingall is ascendant in conservative circles. He has earned the influence and control that long eluded him in more conventional streams of media and party politics.
Ballingall is elliptical about his broader objectives—he says that “my own goal is to have fun, advance my ideological ideals, and build a platform for future business and political aspirations”—but his ambitions are now both national and federal. Shortly after the Ontario election, the group posted a meme showing Wynne and Trudeau in the frame: “Wynne down. Trudeau to go,” it read. “That’s the beauty of social media,” Ballingall says. “It’s democracy at work. It’s modern democracy.”