Over the last few weeks a number of pundits have been unsure how to react to sudden rise of the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament. Conservative politicians attempted to label the over 200,000-person strong group as part of "the chattering classes" and political pundits have questioned whether online protests even have meaning or weight.
What is more likely is that few politicians or pundits have actually spent time on the Facebook group and fewer still have tried to understand who its members are and what they believe. Recently Pierre Killeen, an Ottawa-based online public engagement strategist, conducted a survey of the group's membership in partnership with the Rideau Institute.
Over 340 members of the anti-prorogation Facebook group shared their views and while not a scientific survey, it does provide a window into the group's makeup and the motivations of its members. Some of the results will surprise both pundits and politicians:
Older than exepcted
To begin, contrary to the view that Facebook is entirely youth driven, just under half of those who completed the survey were 45 years of age or older. Thirty-four per cent were aged 31 to 44 and 16 per cent answered that they were aged 18 to 30. Not a single person who opted to take the survey was aged 12 to 18.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey was the fact that 96 per cent of the participants said they voted in the last federal election. Survey recipients frequently overstate their voting history (people wish to sound more responsible than they are) and this result should be regarded with some skepticism. However, it nonetheless suggests group members are more likely to vote than the general population. (Sixty per cent of Canadians voted in the last federal election).
New to, but believers in, online activism
Over half of the members surveyed (55 per cent) said this was the first time they had joined a politically oriented Facebook group. Another 33 per cent indicated they had previously joined only two to four Facebook groups with political themes. Interestingly, 75 per cent of respondents believe the group "will make a difference" while 22 per cent were unsure.
Democracy and accountability are the key issues
Lastly, when asked why they joined, just over half (53 per cent) of respondents indicated it was because "proroguing parliament is undemocratic" and another 33 per cent said it was because "Parliament needs to investigate the Afghan detainee matter."
Again, it is worth noting that this survey is not scientific, but is our best window to date into who has joined Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament.
And what should people take away from all this? The Facebook group matters for reasons beyond those I initially outlined for The Globe. The fact that this is the first time a majority of those surveyed have joined a politically oriented online campaign suggests such groups may serve as an on-ramp to greater activism and awareness.
More importantly, however, if the survey results are even remotely representative, then the members of the Facebook group vote. Any time 200,000 citizens say an issue will affect their vote, politicians should not discount them so hastily.
Finally, given that Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament has signed up twice the number of Facebook members than all the political leaders combined ( Conservatives 29,616; Liberals 28,898; NDP 27,713; Bloc 4,020; for a collective total of 90,247 fans) this is a constituency whose impact may be better monitored in the voting booth than on the street.
David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver