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Canada’s first Twitter election is upon us

by The Concordian April 5, 2011
Canada’s first Twitter election is upon us

Graphic by Sean Kershaw

You might think Twitter is a waste of time, or simply another social media website for attention hogs to post their most inane thoughts, but it might just be turning into Canadian politicians’ newest campaigning tool.

With close to 120,000, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is ahead of the other party leaders with the most followers on Twitter.

Interestingly enough, before the campaign period started, Harper’s communications team (because you didn’t actually think Steve tweeted off his BlackBerry himself, did you?) would only use the account for the posting of official press releases. The @pmharper account is still used for that, but it is being used far more frequently and regularly. Before the election campaign, there would be one tweet every few days that would be Harper’s official statement on the situations in Egypt, Libya or Japan, for example, or a photo from an event or rally he attended.

“Canadians have a clear choice between stable government and a reckless Coalition,” Harper tweeted on March 26. Since then, not a day has gone by without a tweet about a campaign promise or political rhetoric, including some back-and-forth replies between Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s Twitter feed.

The @M_Ignatieff account has 81,000 followers, while the NDP leader’s @jacklayton, the Bloc’s @GillesDuceppe and the Green Party’s @ElizabethMay boast 71,000, 51,000 and 17,000 respectively.

Twitter is a way great for Canadians to keep track of all the party leaders’ promises and campaigns, but it is likely that they only follow candidates they already back or agree with, as evidenced by the large divide between each party leader’s number of followers.

Our last federal election occurred in 2008, weeks before the American election that made Barack Obama the President of the United States. Candidates in the election stateside were using social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube throughout their campaign, so the fact that Twitter is now becoming a legitimate and serious campaigning option in Canada is not surprising. Canadians have generally been slower to embrace new technological fads, even though we spend a lot of time online.

Of course politicians have always embraced technological advancements that make the broadcasting of their messages easier and less mediated. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt both used radio (and were amazed by its potential) to connect with the people in the 1920s and 1930s. The first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 is also credited with revolutionizing politics.

In the same way that televisions were not in every household, not all Canadians have a Twitter account. It should be kept in mind that campaigning on Twitter must be done in conjunction with all other “traditional” means.

Of the 175 million people registered on Twitter (a far cry from the billion-and-up on Facebook), around four million are Canadian. Why don’t Canadian party leaders then have more followers than they currently do?

Although Twitter is coming into its own as a social media site, even timely messages from Harper, Iggy and co. are not likely to cure Canadian voter apathy.

The digitization of political campaigns is also showing itself on the Liberal MP candidates’ posters in the form of QR codes. It’s a good effort on the Liberals’ part, but the signs are posted so high on the street that few people can reach them, and in all honesty, if your phone reads QR codes, then it has a web browser. You’re better off just going to the candidate’s web page by typing in the address into your phone’s web application.

Regardless, Twitter is the newest communication tool and its potential is immense. But reading unmediated messages from politicians (essentially press releases) means they have not been picked at and verified by journalists, and it becomes the people’s responsibility to do research, stay informed and make sure their politicians’ tweets are factual.

 

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