The Daily Exchange: The sad state of the Twitter campaign
So far, we Daily Exchangers have been focused on the actual election campaign. We’ve been talking about the leaders, the platforms, the TV ads, the negative attacks and the name-calling. I’m not sure if we have talked about journalists on the tours and how they have complained about their food and accommodation. Erika - maybe you can lead off on that tomorrow.
One thing I'm sure we haven’t talked about yet is the shadow election that’s happening at the same time as this actual election.
I'm talking about the Twitter election.
The experts say - and I tend agree with them - that social media has much promise. It can break down barriers, help leaders and parties connect with millions of voters, and usher in a new golden age of digital democracy, all in 140 characters or less.
So how is that working out here in Ontario?
Two words: Hashtag. Fail.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe just how awful it is out there in the Ontario election world of #onpoli, #voteon, @fake[insert_candidate_name] and partisan spambots.
Every now and then, if you look really hard, you can spot interesting, constructive discussion. But for the most part, there are only two things happening out there in the Twitter-verse.
First, you’ve got hyper-partisan committed voters SHOUTING AT THEIR POLITICAL OPPONENTS, because insults and putdowns are awesome.
Second, you’ve got savvy media relations outfits engaged in some ultra-sophisticated strategy. Try to trick media into thinking your team has the Big Mo by getting political staffers to regurgitate canned party talking points over, and over, and over. Because nothing's more compelling than cut-and-paste talking points. That’s the kind of intelligent campaigning that’s bound to influence hard-nosed reporters like @rjbrennan.
Seriously, the Twitter election is like nails on a chalkboard. It's like Dante’s fifth circle of hell. It's like Screech from Saved by the Bell. All rolled up into one. It's awful, awful, awful.
What's a campaign manager to do? Here’s my advice.
1. Invite supporters to take a break from the Internet and talk to some actual voters. There are things to learn and votes to earn on the doorsteps. Andrea Horwath broke out of her bubble and mainstreeted with voters yesterday in Toronto and Ottawa. So it can be done.
2. Get out and debate. This time, in this election, a Twitter debate consisting of canned talking points and negative attacks isn't good enough. Ontario has been through some tough times these last few years. We’re facing some big challenges. So let's get leaders out of their bubbles, get them in front of voters and let’s have an exchange of ideas.
3. Try to raise the bar. As I said earlier, Twitter has great possibilities. And despite everything I've said, there is no denying there are many, many good people on Twitter having a lot of good and interesting conversations. Twitter doesn’t have to be a social media distraction factory (props to @greg_elmer). It can be a positive tool that helps voters connect with campaigns and each other. It can help voters make an informed choice on election day. But for that to happen, leaders and parties are going to have to show some leadership. They're going to have to say no to the status quo, and say yes to doing things differently. If that happened, heck, we’d all be #winning.
- Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP
Response from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
Social media may be adding a new element to campaigns, but it does not supersede traditional campaigning.
It's easy to whip out your smartphone and type in a short message to your followers. I've done it while knocking on doors, attending a rally, and on my way to parts of the province to campaign (which helped me recruit more people to canvass with my team in one case last weekend). It's an enhancement to the campaign, not a substitute.
But, like Jeff, I have had some observations about #voteon and #onpoli.
Twitter makes it easy for people to comment under the cover of darkness. Since I started my Twitter account over a year and a half ago I have been subject to some nasty unnamed source attacks based on my political affiliation. It makes it easier to attack since anyone can make up a fake account and hide behind it. But does this affect "regular" voters? No. I don't think they are following my feed.
As has been argued by social media experts, Twitter has made the back rooms more visible. Instead of political hacks spinning reporters and influential thirds parties "back rooms," they are doing it online, where anyone with a twitter handle can see. It can be fascinating. You can easily track what the message of the day is from any party by following their spokespeople.
But despite those that think they are masterminds for making up fake twitter accounts, reporters are able to see through the games. They may have been fooled by Rob Ford's campaign manager's fake account (seriously, did people really think one twitter account translated to 100,000 votes?) but Twitter is now a stable in campaigns, and reporters aren't really that easily fooled.
Let's be frank. The majority of people that post and follow #voteon and #onpoli have their minds made up on how they are voting. It is a tool that can be used for breaking news, reaching voters that may not be reachable in other ways, and yes, I think for pulling the vote on election day, but the debate that is happening on these hash tags is mainly between partisans looking to score easy points.
I like Jeff's idealism that the Twitter election can one day be used only for good, not for rants and attacks. But, the truth is, a lot of the negative actions are being taken by fake accounts or by people not directly affiliated with the campaigns.
I'm not a believer that hyper-partisanship will sway voters on Twitter. I am, however, a believer that a Twitter message sent from an MPP, a candidate, or a leader of a party to an "average voter" on Twitter can be really cool. Twitter has a place in elections, just beware of believing everything you read and hear on the site.
Response from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper:
If social media are not being utilized to full potential in this campaign, the political parties are partly responsible.
And the criticism is not limited to social media. It fairly extends to all digital media.
An estimated 79 per cent of Canadian households have access to the Internet (2010 estimate, http://ow.ly/6zSmV). Seven of every ten adults (not to mention nine teenagers in ten) have participated in online social media and three-quarters of teens have used instant messaging (2008 figures, http://ow.ly/6zSI9).
Tim Hudak's town halls, pioneered by Rob Ford, are still novel. Kudos to him for engaging tens of thousands of voters this way. It's a clever use of technology ... but it's telephone technology, not an example of exploiting new media.
Don't get me wrong. All the leaders are on Twitter. And it's nice to know they all had a good time at the International Plowing Match. But 140-character travelogues fall short of using the medium to move hearts and minds.
Similarly, all the leaders are on Facebook. And Tim Hudak is cleaning up in the race to have users "like" him or his page: As of this afternoon, 17,982 for Hudak (http://on.fb.me/cyWvpN), 8,041 for Dalton McGuinty (http://on.fb.me/pgqF9B) and 5,339 for Andrea Horwath (http://on.fb.me/pCjoym). But those numbers pale when compared to the 8 million registered voters. And collecting Facebook "likes" can hardly be considering harnessing the full power of social media.
Then there are the websites. I conducted my own experiment, using the three issues of greatest public concern according to a recent poll (http://bit.ly/n1z6YU). I went to each website, and tried to determine how quickly an undecided voter could learn the party's plan for health care, the economy and taxes.
The Liberal website is best at communicating only what the party wishes to discuss, and therefore the worst at letting users research issues of their choosing. There is no menu of policies or topics - just PDFs of the platform (albeit in two dozen languages).
The PC website presents detailed information under its "Issues" tab, but there's a design limitation: nothing tells users they need to scroll down to read about their chosen topic, leaving the impression that nothing happens when you click on a topic link: http://bit.ly/nifBCv. Video footage has Mr. Hudak talking about each topic area, but extra effort is required of users who favour the traditional method of collecting information (reading).
The NDP website suffers from the same limitation (see http://bit.ly/kD86TS), plus it lacks a topic menu. There's just a one page summary of the platform under seven topical headings.
The bottom line: Ontario's political parties have entered the digital age, but they could be doing so much more.