Canadian Politicians See Varied Success While Using Twitter

This week was abuzz with social networking news from Canada. Several Canadian politicians appear to have embraced the simple, direct communication found in Tweets as part of their plans for engaging citizens in politics. A recent study examining Canadian Members of Parliament use of Twitter comes on the heels of the announcement that the budget speech on March 4th will be Tweeted from the office of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – news that displays the potential as well as the limitations of Twitter as a political tool.

Using the free Twitter analysis tool Twitalyzer, Mark Blevis, the author of the study “The House of Tweets“, measured Canadian federal politicians in terms of their clout, influence, and generosity on Twitter. He found that only 20% of these politicians used Twitter at all, with even fewer using it effectively. However, there were a handful of politicians, notably James Moore, Canadian Heritage Minister and Denis Coderre, Liberal Quebec MP, who had a small but engaged following. Although this group of politicians effectively using Twitter is small, their constant updates – from their reactions to the tragedy in Haiti to links to opinion polls – and replies to followers make theirs a template for other politicians to follow. Blevis found that the category of politicians with the largest followings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and NDP leader Jack Layton, tended to use Twitter as a broadcasting tool, rather than a means to engage the public.

In other news from Canada, the Finance Department announced that it will broadcast pieces of the Federal budget live as it is read in the House of Commons on March 4th. These Tweets will include links to sections of the budget online and summaries of what Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says during his speech. Although Flaherty has touted this move as something used to connect with citizens and show his government’s commitment to both digital communication and transparency of their economic policies, it is interesting to note that the Tweets will be coming from Finance Canada‘s Twitter account – according to Canadian MP Twitter tracker website, Jim Flaherty doesn’t have his own account set up.

The use of Twitter as a way to broadcast a short-burst political message is directly in line with the ongoing trend of politicians playing into both citizens’ demands for up-to-date, real-time information and the media’s voracious love of short, condensed political sound bites. Canadian politicians’ use of Twitter is clearly still in its infancy, but with examples like James Moore, Denis Coderre, and the Finance Department using Twitter as a two-way, information-driven communication tool, there’s a distinct possibility that it will become an even more prominent method of political engagement in the future.

Twitter’s 140-character messages lend themselves equally to quick and useful links, policy highlights, and conversations with citizens on the one hand, and campaigning, political grandstanding and negative partisan mudslinging on the other. It is up to the politicians to follow the examples of engagement and political deliberation laid out by the handful of their colleagues using it positively and create a true Twitter-led digital dialog in the realm of politics.