Power of social media
Engaging voters online is changing face of politics
On his way into the office Tuesday morning, John Ashton was stopped in his tracks by a gorgeous sunrise rising over Edmonton.
It wasn’t just the glow of a new day that seized the NDP staffer’s attention. It was the colour.
“A beautiful orange dawn over Edmonton,” recalled Ashton, the party’s social media expert.
Ashton whipped out his iphone, snapped a picture and posted it to Twitter — the sky’s hue a match for the NDP’S own colours.
In no time, the image was being bounced and re-tweeted among NDP candidates, providing a virtual rallying cry for party supporters in a highly competitive Edmonton race.
“Just something a little bit symbolic like that can really captivate people,” Ashton explained.
Welcome to campaigning in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
Never before have political parties had so many tools for engaging voters, whether it’s in their homes, at the coffee shop or even on the bus during the morning commute.
But with instant rewards comes immediate risks, as has been amply demonstrated during the run up to the April 23 vote.
Regardless, like the advent of television, radio and the telephone before it, social media is changing the face of Alberta politics.
“It’s an engagement tool. You want people to be talking about your ideas,” said Vitor Marciano of the Wildrose party.
“It’s part of everything we do,” Liberal campaign chair Corey Hogan said. “It’s pervasive. It’s almost to me like asking a question nowadays, ‘How do computers fit into the campaign?’ ”
With the help of social media, politicians can now reach voters nearly anywhere, anytime in a dialogue that goes practically 24/7.
It’s not a panacea — as demonstrated by last weekend’s resignation of a Tory staffer who posted an ill-considered tweet at Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith questioning why she doesn’t have children.
Although the young woman had no profile prior to the controversy, the incident rapidly turned into another political migraine for Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservatives at a time they didn’t need one.
The blunder illustrates some of the pitfalls of social media, says Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.
“Would it had been as big a story if it were confined solely to Twitter?” Bratt wonders. “But it started there — and it started there because it is so quick and easy.”
There’s also a seedy side to politics in the virtual universe, where people can make anonymous attacks on opponents, or someone — or some hired firm — can try to manipulate opinion by posing online as something they’re not.
And there’s also the constant sniping, sometimes veering into bullying, that goes on among supporters from various political camps, whether it’s on Twitter or in the comments sections of news websites.
But the upside clearly outweighs the risks, as all major parties reach out to voters over the electronic divide.
“It will play a role” in the campaign, said pollster Marc Henry, president of Thinkhq Public Affairs.
“All modern campaigns are using social media, both in terms of pushing out information and, certainly, in terms of keeping their activists involved.
“And it can also be a helpful tool in terms of getting out the vote.”
Take Raj Sherman’s Liberals, for example.
Hogan says that when they make an announcement on the campaign trail, they look at it from all sides of the social media spectrum.
“When we announce something, we look at our Facebook angle, we talk about posting a news story, we make sure that it’s on our social media site,” Hogan said.
“As far as getting Albertans to the polls, we’re most excited I think about Facebook and about things of that nature because that tends to get the more casual voter engaged.”
To make his point, Hogan points to Calgary and the Facebook sites of friends during the 2010 civic election, which led to an upset victory in the mayor’s race for Naheed Nenshi.
“My entire Facebook wall was purple,” he said, remembering how people changed their avatars to show support for the candidate.
“It was just a stream of ‘Vote Nenshi’ and these little purple badges. It was powerful and it certainly sent an image about how my friends were voting and the power of social networks to get people out, not just to vote, but to vote the way their friends vote.”
Nenshi made good use of social media during his campaign, but insiders stress that it doesn’t on its own account for the victory.
For one, Nenshi maintained a tireless schedule that had him attending countless public events, debates, festivals
Social media is just another tool . . . it’s like coffee shops in the 1960s WILDROSE PARTY’S VITOR MARCIANO
and even coffee parties for months before the vote. The candidate’s platform — and his ability to deliver it — were also key.
Progressive Conservative campaign strategist Stephen Carter, who also worked on Nenshi’s campaign, says it’s authenticity that matters — and it matters even more in new media.
“We have to be authentic because we are interacting directly with the audience,” Carter said. “No stages, no microphones. We are directly talking to them. So, these things matter. Authentic matters.”
And you have to talk about the things that matter to people.
“Remember when you met you wife?
“How successful would you have been if you only talked about things that mattered to you?” Carter asked.
“It’s the same thing in politics. We have to talk to people (about things) that matter to them. There’s no mystery to this.”
Measuring success on social media isn’t a precise science, but the number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers indicates a message is resonating and, in that sense, it can build momentum and excitement, says the Wildrose’s Marciano.
“You can’t just do it as an after-thought. You’ve got to be reaching out to people, you’ve got to be listening,” he said.
“Social media is just another tool to get people talking and thinking about politics. It’s like coffee shops in the 1960s.”
But while social media has provided politicians with new ways to contact you, some observers are skeptical whether it will deliver votes.
“The connection between social media and turnout, I don’t think it’s there,” Bratt said.
“What it does do is it gives more avenues, more voice to those who are already engaged. But it doesn’t reach out to the disengaged.”
Of course, the various political war rooms don’t see social media as a magic bullet — not in a province that saw record-low turnout of just 41 per cent in the last election.
Indeed, when it comes to engaging voters, traditional campaigning still counts for a lot.
“There is no substitute for the basics: door-knocking and canvassing,” said Ashton of the NDP.
“A hundred years from now, no matter what social media technology exists, people are still going to have to knock on doors, people are still going to have to see each other face to face, and there will be no substitute for a one-on-one chat and a handshake.”