Will social media finally come into its own in this year federal election? That is one of the many questions being asked by pundits and voters alike. Internationally social media have played an important role in many recent elections such as last fall mid term elections in the US and last year general election in the UK. In Canada, we also have a recent example of how social media can influence the outcome of an election. For many, Naheed Nenshi’s unlikely win of the mayorship in Calgary last fall is directly attributable to his active and savvy use of social media. But as researchers in social media, we think the question remains, is it the case that “the medium is the message”, a phrase made famous by McLuhan’s. Or is it a case that a candidate’s or party’s message must also resonate with voters who are using social media? Or is it both? But regardless, one thing is certain, the reach and growth of social media in our society is inevitable. In addition to being able to reach millions of Canadians (about ~16-17 millions on Facebook and about 4-5 millions on Twitter), social media enable politicians to have real-time conversations with potential voters, solicit their feedback, encourage their participation, deflect claims of political opponents within seconds and build loyal communities of supporters. For the average voters, social media allow them to connect and share experiences with other like minded individuals and reinforce their sense of community and solidarity around a particular candidate or party.
Some interesting uses of social media during past elections in other jurisdictions includes the use of Foursquare, a location-based social networking website. During the 2010 mid term election in the US, Foursquare encouraged its users to “check-in” using their GPS enable cellphone at the location where they have just voted and sharing it with the friends and colleagues in their network . As an incentive, users of the website were given a virtual ‘i-vote’ badge for doing so. Using the check-in information from polling booths around the country, Foursquare was able to show a real-time map of how many people voted and where (see below). According to the website, about 50,000 people checked-in at over 23,500 venues. It will be interesting to see if any of the parties or candidates here in Canada will be using Foursquare to create flash mob at rallies in this year federal election and to build social awareness about their campaign among younger voters.
Another interesting (but ethically questionable) example of the social media use during an election was during the 2008 Canadian Federal Election. The VoterPair website and their Facebook application allowed Canadians to swap their votes with other people in another riding where their votes might have “a better chance of making a difference”. After registering with the website, a user just needed to provide his/her name, riding, preferred party to vote for, and other parties he/she is willing to vote for, and the website will try to find a match for this user. According to the website, about 2,800 voters swapped their votes across the country in 2008. Now that an election has been declared, this website is active once again. It will be interesting to see if more people would use its service this time around or whether the novelty factor has worn off.
During this election campaign, the Social Media Lab is monitoring various social media platforms to see what people are saying about the election, how the major political parties are using social media and whether social media will motivate voters to get involved and actually get out and vote. So stay tuned for our regular updates and analysis on how social media is being used in the 2011 Canadian federal election.
* Philip Mai contributed to the writing of this post.