For all the hoopla around social media and elections, does the former really make any difference in the latter?
Last week’s provincial election was the first in which social media were mature enough to play a role. That fact proved a boon for tv networks, not only providing old-school talking heads another way to fill dead air while waiting to see which former Walmart greeter had won the day in North Huckleberry, but introducing a new breed of grinning half-wit specializing in saying things like “check out my Tweetdeck” and “in the last 24 hours, another 271 people have liked Andrea Horwath!”
There’s no doubt that the use of social media in this contest marked a change in vote-getting strategy unseen since the emergence of the internet (“Join the Liberal e-party by dialing up to our World Wide Web Site at www.liberal.canada.politics/liberal/party/liberal/flashinggifs.ca.com”). But has the impact of the new tools on the electoral process been exaggerated?
Social media were definitely a big part of the promotional mix. Twitter, the inexplicably successful microbloggery beloved by the illiterati and attention-deficit disordered, hummed with activity as the campaign wore on. The Ontario Liberals had 102 candidates tweeting, with the PCs close behind at 95, and the NDP trailing at 67. (Only three provincial Greens apparently used Twitter; possibly no one told them that it’s free and not tested on animals.)
Unsurprisingly, the party leaders drew the most followers, with Dalton McGuinty leading at just under 17,000, Tim Hudak second at around 11,600, and Horwath running the traditional third with 8,200 people tuning in (while McGuinty and Horwath are still providing updates, Hudak hasn’t tweeted since offering a terse thanks to PC candidates the day after the election. This has been a blow to fans anxious to know which barbeque or ethnic potluck Tim, Deb, and Miller will attend next weekend).
Beyond this, consider the untallied thousands of online pundits, i-satirists, Facebook likers, retweeters, and old-fashioned bloggers who engaged in broadcasts, chats, and debates about the candidates and the issues. If you’re poltically active online, you could be forgiven for thinking that people are paying attention, that the times are a-changing, that what you and your friends say MATTERS.
Democracy in action!
Maybe not. All the candidates together garnered fewer than 170,000 Twitter followers, a drop in the the bucket of 8.5 million eligible voters. It’s also safe to assume that number includes a lot of overlap, with many election enthusiasts following multiple candidates.
And for all the virtual sound and fury, voter turnout hit an all-time low of just over 49 per cent, proving that whatever our new media may have inspired, they didn’t motivate too many folks to slide off the sectional and cross the street to spoil a ballot.
For all the carefully crafted tweets, the Facebook-shared photos of pasty-faced politicos posing awkwardly in turban or lederhosen, the angry blog-trolls with a hate-on for windmills, there’s little evidence that the technology of one-to-many opinionating had much impact at all on the electoral outcome.
That doesn’t mean the sense of feverish activity isn’t real. It just means that the same people who have always been interested in politics are still talking to each other, except now they have newer, faster, more annoying ways to do it. This particular chunk of the social mediaverse can be likened to a giant coffee shop full of political wonks, high on conviction and Red Bull, shouting and gesticulating frantically but having no meaningful effect on the rest of the world, beyond the occasional shout of “Freedom!” drifting through the doors to the noisy street outside.
The lesson, if there is one: all the bullhorns in the world can’t make people listen if the message doesn’t appeal.