Dan Fumano: Vancouver developer behind Anonymous Political Advertiser

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Column: Views of Vancouver has spent tens of thousands of dollars since last year on online advertising, including political attack ads, but was anonymous until now.

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The Views of Vancouver Facebook page makes no secret of its disdain for Mayor Kennedy Stewart. Between anodyne posts celebrating the city, the site takes shots at the mayor, saying he has failed to address homelessness and crime and has “destroyed Vancouver.”

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One post says “Vancouver has a terrible new reputation” as “the city where random assaults are common.” Another says: “Our city is no longer safe like it used to be.”

Views of Vancouver describes itself as “a grassroots organization,” but its Facebook page and website include no information about who is behind or who spent tens of thousands of dollars on digital political advertising that reached hundreds of thousands of Vancouver voters.

The prospect of Vancouver had obviously boosted the Non-Partisan Association, call it “the only party that will tackle crime and implement a serious plan,” praising John Coupar, who until recently was the NPA’s mayoral candidate. But NPA leadership says it has “no connection” with Views of Vancouver and only finds out about the website promoting the party, its candidates and events when material is posted.

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Postmedia News has confirmed that the person responsible for the site is local real estate magnate Peter Wall.

“View of Vancouver is us, I started it,” he told me.

Many of the topics highlighted on Views of Vancouver are important to Wall personally.

In June, Views of Vancouver spent $1,800 promoting a Facebook ad that said, “Instead of closing streets, we need to relieve congestion by reopening West Point Gray to traffic.”

In a recent phone conversation, Wall, who lives on West Point Gray Road, brought up the bike lane that closed part of that street to car traffic. He also raised the topic of raw sewage and runoff pollutes False Creek.

Another ad for Views of Vancouver, which ran in June, declared: “John Coupar has been the only mayoral candidate to prioritize real change. His plan as NPA mayor is to address Vancouver’s dirty little secret: the slope of raw sewage into False Creek, making the surrounding waters dirty and unsafe.”

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At the NPA campaign launch in May of this year, Coupar, then the party’s mayoral candidate, declared that his administration would “restore our reputation as the cleanest, greenest city in North America, starting with addressing our dirty little secret: the problem of millions and millions of gallons of raw sewage are dumped into False Creek.”

A philanthropist who has given to a number of local causes big and smallWall often speaks openly about his love for Vancouver and his cares about his challenges including homelessness, mental health and addiction.

Peter Wall, photographed in Vancouver in 2006.
Peter Wall, photographed in Vancouver in 2006. Photo by Gerry Kahrmann /Province

“I want to wake up Vancouver to start asking questions and demanding some answers to some of the stupid things we’re doing. And let’s celebrate some of the good things,” Wall said of his goals for Views of Vancouver. “We’re trying not to influence anyone.”

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Facebook records show that Views of Vancouver has spent $20,952 on dozens of ads since last year, much of it political messaging criticizing Stewart and supporting the NPA and Coupar. While that far exceeds the third-party political advertising limit of $11,588, the timing of Views’ Facebook ad means it falls outside the pre-election period when third-party advertising rules come into effect.

Wall was a prominent part of the NPA’s May campaign launch with Coupar. But the day Coupar dropped out abruptly of the race in early August, Wall told me he blamed the NPA board, saying “John had to pull out because they were working against him.”

Last week, Wall said he wanted to make it clear that he does not support the current NPA leadership.

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Views of Vancouver has not made any posts supporting the NPA since Coupar’s departure, but has continued to run paid ads about homeless encampments in the Downtown Eastside urging people to “sign our petition if you want change in our city.”

In the months before Coupar’s resignation, Views of Vancouver had published information about NPA events, including photos from the party’s May campaign launch, and promoting a June “meet and greet” event with NPA candidates at the Wall Center Pavilion. These posts were on the Views of Vancouver Facebook page on August 3rd, but appear to have been removed since then.

Views of Vancouver do not appear to have promoted events or official announcements from political parties or candidates other than the NPA.

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NPA president David Mawhinney said his party “has no connection to Views of Vancouver.”

“They may have been promoting NPA events, but the NPA had no prior knowledge of this or connection to it in any way,” Mawhinney said.

There is a name for running an entity that pretends to be a community organization while hiding the source of its funding and organizers. It is called “astroturfing,” as in something that appears to be grassroots but isn’t.

An entity like Views of Vancouver, which has more than 18,000 followers on Facebook, is worth paying attention to and investigating, said Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University who studies social media and online political activity.

“This kind of astroturfing activity is, in my opinion, more influential than normal advertising …. They can actually be more influential than any kind of direct promotional marketing by political parties.”

That’s because people are more likely to trust and pay attention to information coming from a supposed grassroots community organization than advertisements from a political party, Al-Rawi said. He cited the example of “astroturfing”, including from Russian sources widely believed to have influenced the 2016 election by US President Donald Trump.

In addition to his philanthropy and business success, Wall is known to use his money to work in the political realm.

dfumano@postmedia.com

twitter.com/fumano

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