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Muzzling the election

Almost 900 days ago, NBC News gave its staff a fifteen minute alert the network would declare Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States. The public, at that moment, had no idea the outcome of the election.

In eleven days, Canada’s news media will be legally forbidden from reporting any election results until the last vote is cast at 10 p.m. EDT. And although the same rules apply to the public, Canadians may already know the election results thanks to discussions on social media like Twitter.

Discussions that are actually illegal.

Despite multiple legal challenges, the Canadian courts continue to uphold Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act which prevents the transmission of results of one riding (or district) to another. Contravening the ban can result in a $25,000 fine.

What do such restrictions look like for an online news organization?

The Globe and Mail has integrated election-specific Twitter feeds into each of its 308 riding pages. Using this Twitter integration, voters can see what issues are being discussed in their area, see what the candidates are saying, and even participate themselves.  But not on election night. Those feeds will be closed when voting is underway on May 2. Same with those on the new iPad app.

Comments are another integral feature to The Globe’s online news offering, and have been so for nearly six years. There are normally tens of thousands of Canadians discussing the political issues in comments across the site. On election day, while the polls are open, comments must be shut down, again, because of Section 329 in the Election Act.

The Globe and Mail is also legally required to ask its audience to not comment about the election on affiliated Facebook and YouTube pages.

And although reporters will be busy writing stories analyzing the results of the election, they will remain unfilled until 10 p.m. EDT, when The Globe and Mail, like all Canadian news outlets, can finally tell a knowing public who will lead the country’s new government.

The Globe and Mail issued its official explanation of what will be happening on the site during the May 2, 2011 election. Comments will be shut between 7 p.m. EDT (when Newfoundland and Labrador polls close) and 10 p.m. EDT (when the last poll closes in British Columbia). To compensate, there will be a moderated liveblog to allow readers to comment legally. Meanwhile, a grassroots Twitter effort is promising to post results (illegally) using the hashtag #tweettheresults.