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Was Ford Staffer David Price Posting Comments as 'Scarborough Dave' While On the Payroll?
How deep does the astroturfing go?

CBC is reporting that David Price, a long time friend of the Ford brothers and current member of the mayor’s staff, called into Rob and Doug’s radio show on at least six occasions identifying himself on air only as “Dave from Scarborough” or “Dave from Etobicoke.” Price called in to share his thoughts about issues, like the city-mandated plastic bag fee, that just happened to be overwhelmingly in support of Rob Ford’s agenda. On the bag fee:

“That, in my humble opinion, is fascism, and it’s ludicrous that comrade [former mayor David] Miller and his merry band of big-brother, I know better than you, paternalistic, heavy-handed, Looney Tunes socialists should be setting the agenda of this great city of Toronto.”

Very healthy debate, but that’s neither here nor there. Despite repeatedly saying calls to the show aren’t planted and that unfriendly calls aren’t screened out, it turns out that – oops – yeah, the Fords were taking planted calls. But in fairness, Price wasn’t a staff member at the time he made the calls, and according to the CBC’s source, when the mayor’s other staff discovered “Dave from Scarborough” was actually an old friend of the Fords’, they put a stop to shenanigans. As Doug Ford told CP24 in a technically accurate non-denial, “No employee from [the mayor’s] office calls in.”

But what if that’s not the end of story? Astute followers of #topoli have already mused about a potential connection between “Dave from Scarborough” and prolific web commenter Scarborough Dave. Browsing through comment sections on stories that pertain to Mayor Ford, particularly on The Grid, it won’t take long before you stumble across a comment from Scarborough Dave that touts the mayor’s achievements and lambasts any criticism of his record. Comments like this:

via thegridto.com

and this:

via thegridto.com

The language and tone of the comments are so perfectly in line with the mayor’s own political talking points that one can’t help but wonder if the person that wrote them was coordinating with the mayor’s office. And in light of the revelation that David Price was calling into the Fords’ radio show posing as “Dave from Scarborough” it’s no stretch of the imagination to think that these pro-Ford comments may have come from the same source.

Before we go on: is astroturfing illegal? No.

Would it be wrong for a politician to instruct a staffer to respond to stories posted online? Not if they identified themselves as a spokesperson.

Does using government resources to create the illusion that regular citizens passionately support your agenda violate the public trust and amount to a gross misuse of tax dollars? I say yes.

Is making a big fuss about online comments a little nit-picky? Probably. But it’s shitty and hypocritical of the mayor or any politician to abet this kind of tactic. It poisons public discourse. It definitely isn’t an example of transparency or accountability, number two on the Mayor’s stated list of priorities. Even Doug Ford’s comments implicitly acknowledge that astroturfing is wrong. Assuring us that no staff call into the show implies that having staff call into the show would be wrong. If Price is spending his taxpayer-funded hours anonymously commenting on critical news stories, I’d call that a scandal.

While the calls have stopped coming into the radio show, “Scarborough Dave” has continued posting comments even after Price became the mayor’s director of operations and logistics in April. Here’s a comment from May 18:

via thegridto.com

So, was Price posting comments while on the city payroll? There’s an easy way to prove this. We could use the IP address of the commenter to determine their identity using a simple search on whois.net, a website that provides the address and organization to which any IP address is registered. Web Editor for The Grid Stuart Berman confirmed that the magazine does collect IP information from commenters on their website, but would “only use that information when there’s a legal imperative to do so.” Without a court order it seems the true identity of Scarborough Dave will remain a mystery for now, but as a judge in the court of public opinion, I’d say the circumstantial evidence we have already would be enough to justify issuing a warrant.

This isn’t the first time Ford and company have been caught astroturfing. After the 2010 election, Mayor Ford’s deputy campaign manager Nick Kouvalis openly bragged about setting up a fake twitter account and persona that he claims kept John Tory from running. And it’s not like the tactic is confined to the local mudslinging arena. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is facing scrutiny for dispatching Conservative party interns to picket an outdoor Justin Trudeau press conference. And, honestly, in the midst of other allegations and policy failures by the mayor, having his staff post some sneaky online commentary is a drop in the bucket. But for the mayor who claims to represent the little guy, having staff pose as grass roots supporters exposes the hypocrisy of Ford’s mythology.

And frankly, trying to convince Ed Keenan’s readers that Rob Ford is the man would be a waste of time.

UPDATE: Mayor Ford has suspended David Price for a week without pay after Price called the Toronto Sun and asked that a headline for the “Dave from Scarborough” story be changed while attempting to remain anonymous. Ford asked to hear a recording of the call and apologized on behalf of his staff saying, “I don’t deal with people like this.

So, was Price acting on his own accord all along? Or is this Ford cleaning up the damage, with Price acting as the necessary scapegoat? Either way, it’s more proof that the mayor’s office is in disarray. Can anybody work for this guy?

UPDATE 2: Shortly after this article was published I received an email from somebody who claims to be Scarborough Dave. While insisting on anonymity – I cannot confirm this person’s true identity – they told me that the pro-Ford comments made on The Grid website by Scarborough Dave were not made by David Price, but posted as a prank meant to get a rise out of people. “It was started as myself as a parody account and has no relation to the Ford office. It was a stupid prank and I sincerely apologize for it,” they wrote. When I replied asking how I could confirm their identity they responded only, “I assue (sic) you I am not David Price and have absolutely no connection to the Ford family. I give you my absolute word.” They added, “ I wish I hadn’t [posted the comments] and will never do anything of this nature again.”

So, if we believe this person, and why shouldn’t we, Scarborough Dave was a run-of-the-mill troll and not an old friend and of the Fords’ who became a member of the mayor’s staff. Not surprising really. Admittedly, the idea that Price spent hours trading barbs with Grid readers in the comment section was always a little far-fetched.

If we can learn anything from this little episode, it’s that there is never really a good reason to read the comments.

____ 

Michael Kolberg is The Sprawl Editor at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter for jokes @mikeykolberg.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard and subscribe to our Newsletter.

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