Increasingly, Canadians are turning to social media to follow political events and campaigns, and to engage in discourse with one another on these topics. Political figures such as federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi have used social media to drive their campaigns forward, employing tools such as Twitter and Facebook to build grassroots support and to ignite conversations around their platforms. What effect has this had, and how might it impact the outcome of the upcoming provincial election in Nova Scotia?
Dr. Anatoliy Gruzd and his team at Dalhousie Faculty of Management’s Social Media Lab have been studying the relationship between social media, politics, and political engagement. Dr. Gruzd founded the Lab in 2010, and with the support of a $150,000 CFI Leaders Opportunity Fund grant and Dalhousie’s Faculty of Management launched a dedicated social media research facility earlier this year – the first of its kind in Canada.
Investigations led by Dr. Gruzd and other researchers at the Lab have explored a variety of topics. “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 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,” according to Gruzd.
Research at the Social Media Lab and others have shown that Facebook may involve more self-censoring by individuals and indeed within their communities than a medium such as Twitter, where tweeters and their followers may have less of a personal connection and hence assume some level of anonymity. Gruzd notes, “Results of our other research also suggest that there are some pockets of political polarization on Twitter, but at the same time there is evidence that Twitter may be able to facilitate open, cross-party, and cross-ideological discourse.” Regardless of their differences, both media have been used very successfully by politicians such as Trudeau and Nenshi to create communities of like-minded individuals who will commit both their time and their money to support a shared political agenda and to move their manifestoes forward.
During the 2012 U.S. presidential election, location-based social networking website Foursquare used “check-ins” by users with GPS-enabled smartphones to create a real-time map of how many people voted and where. Sharing of ‘i-vote’ badges allowed users to encourage their friends and connections to get out and vote as well, potentially mobilizing voters or building social awareness about campaigns. In the 2008 and 2011 Canadian Federal Elections, an interesting but ethically questionable website, VoterPair, brokered vote-swapping to allow Canadians to exchange their votes with other people in another riding where their votes might have “a better chance of making a difference”. These types of activities show that social media are not only being used for conversation, news-following, and engagement, but are also being employed with an eye to actually influencing political outcomes.
Gruzd and the Social Media Lab researchers followed Nova Scotia ridings during the last Federal election; including real-time Twitter analysis of how frequently various candidates were mentioned, as well as sentiment analysis of how the tweeters felt about each of those candidates, their leaders and their parties. They also observed tweeting Canadians willingly risking hefty fines, in order to provide real-time updates to their followers across Canada.
Where will this all lead in the upcoming Nova Scotia provincial elections? No one can say for sure, but Gruzd joined by Dr. Jeffrey Roy, a professor at the Faculty of Management’s School of Public Administration, and Elizabeth Dubois, University of Oxford’s visiting doctoral student at the Social Media Lab, and other members of the Lab will be using a proprietary tool called Netlytic, being developed by Dr. Gruzd, to follow online public conversations on social media sites such as Twitter, Youtube, blogs, and online forums. They will be following the leaders and the voting public in real time, discovering which topics is popular, exploring emerging and influential themes, and mapping the social network interactions to see who is leading the conversation, where it is happening, and its effect on how Nova Scotians vote.