How New Media Is Transforming The Upcoming Canadian Election

By Amanda Cosco Comment

They’re calling it Canada’s first social media election.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail reports that Canadians are about to find out whether or not 140 characters can make or break a political campaign. Globe columnist Bill Curry writes that by mid afternoon on Sunday, “more than 14,000 tweets  had been sent out during the first day-and-a-half of the campaign.” Canadians will vote on May 2nd to elect their new government representatives. “If there was ever a question before, it’s clear now” Curry writes, “Canada’s first social media election is under way.”

In addition to running political commercials, the political parties are tweeting and blogging, hoping to reach the more than 16 million potential voters online. Perhaps government parties were inspired by the trajectory of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, a landmark moment in which politics and social media collided with an explosive impact.

With political parties engaging with social media, there’s hope that politicians can reach a younger, web-savvy generation, as more than half of Twitter users are under the age of 24.  According to a recent Twitter poll by Sysomos, 31 percent of tweeters are ages 15-19, and 35 percent are aged 20-24. The next largest group of people on Twitter (15 percent) are ages 25-29, which can be compared to the smallest percent of Twitter users, those 55 and older, who make up only one percent of tweeters.

But can social media deliver a coherent message? Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are known for their fragmented mode of delivery, with tweets limited to 140 characters or less, and Facebook updates restricted to only 420 characters. Can we be sure that youths seeking political information online won’t get lost in the clamor, and, more importantly, how can we be sure that social media isn’t just clamor?

In his seminal text Amusing Ourselves To Death, cultural theorist Neil Postman argues that new media have transformed politics from a coherent discussion to a fractured discourse, where information is delivered in sound bites rather than fully fleshed out arguments. While Postman focused on the societal impact of the television—he wrote in 1985—his concerns are just as valid (if not more so) today. If anything, new media has become more instantaneous and fractured than ever before.

While Postman argues  that technology shapes political conversations in a negative way, others are more optimistic about social media as a political tool.  The recent citizen uprisings in the Middle East demonstrate how spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are being  employed by a new generation of social activists (Wael Ghonim, a notable leader in the uprisings in Egypt, and founder of the Facebook group “We are all Khaled Saeed,” is only thirty).

In North America, popular culture icons like Lady Gaga are engaging with social media to raise awareness about sexism and homophobia—concerns that get overlooked amidst the wars overseas. So perhaps it isn’t that social media will make youths politically interested, but instead, social media provides a platform for politically interested youths.

But are Canadian politicians talking back to today’s youth?  The Globe and Mail suggests that although the upcoming election is being dubbed “the first social media election,” few politicians are engaging with digital audiences. A recent Globe article tells of several groups and individuals to unsuccessfully tried to initiate conversation with political parties via Twitter. Globe columnist  Siri Agrell suggests that “few candidates seem to have grasped the instantaneous connection possible through Twitter, or the impact it could have to communicate directly with voters in this way.” So while politicians may own a social media account, they’ve yet to establish a social media presence, and they’ve yet to grasp the social aspect of so-called “social media.”

Social media provides the potential for a social conversation, so if politicians want to secure the support of a new generation of voters, they’d better start speaking our language—and they’d better start talking (read:tweeting) back.