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Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy
Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Flanagan and Duffy

Election Ringside March 30: OMG, our first Twitter election Add to ...

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 1:50 a.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

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John, what do you think about social media as campaign tools? The last time we squared off against each other, in the 2005-06 campaign, blogs were the Big New Thing. 2008 was the Facebook election, and now it's Twitter.

My observation is that Canadian parties quickly adopt these innovations but use them in top-down ways: to send instructions to staff and volunteers, to notify followers of announcements, to manage the media (send scribes a 140-character tweet, no questions allowed). I think it's in the DNA of the party discipline required to make a parliamentary system work.

Social media, of course, can also be bottom-up. They are now used that way by protesters and revolutionaries across the globe. Barack Obama's 2008 campaign and the 2010 Tea Party campaign also used bottom-up social media, as did Naheed Nenshi's recent mayoralty campaign in Calgary. But Canadian municipal election campaign are mostly non-partisan, so you don't have the same need for message discipline.

Please convince me I'm wrong. Please tell me it's just my regimented Conservative experience, and that social media can be truly liberating in Canadian politics.

From: John Duffy Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 8:00 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Great subject, Tom, dear to my heart. (Oh, that noise in the background? It's my kids laughing at me as I try to sound contemporary on this subject - ignore it.)

We're currently living through a communications revolution driven by new social media technology. It is transforming advertising, advocacy and politics itself. Among folks under 40, virtual community is now the principal means of social interaction.

I glimpsed what's happening last time I was asked to design a communications function for a national campaign. I started out thinking we needed to add to our traditional org chart of earned media, paid media, internal communication a fourth slot called "social." Some videogame-ish stuff those kids do on the inter-nets they use, that kind of thing. Then, a lot of talented young people banged it into my head pretty quickly that social was actually a technological platform through which at least part of every aspect of the campaign could and should be delivered. See John fall off donkey.

Others have been way ahead of me. Most of them in Canada are your Tory pals, but progressives are trying to catch up. And you're right, so far, that Canadian politics has primarily adapted the social media channel to top-down use. (I might suggest, though, that some conservative communities appear to be pretty fully enabled when it comes to social.)

Things are changing fast, though. In the riding of St. Paul's, the ever-innovative Carolyn Bennett is trying to do exactly what you suggest. Her goal is to turn loose her netroots youth team among their hard-to-reach, non-voting peer group, creating momentum in their digital communities for participation, including voting. It's a really promising way to get at problems like low voter turnout and youth disengagement. Plus, it builds toward democratic participation between elections.

I'll keep you posted on how that goes.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 8:31 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

I just watched the YouTube video of Stephen Harper playing the piano and singing Imagine with Maria Aragon. Great campaign fodder, but I don't see anything democratizing about it. I'll go with the thesis that parties adopt technology rather than adapt to it.

From: John Duffy Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 12:34 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Well, I suspect events are about to test your pessimistic analysis, because here we go again with the question of Elizabeth May's participation in the televised leaders debates.

Last time out, the attempt was made to exclude her. But the various interests, public and private, who wanted her out were fairly swiftly forced into reversing themselves. Bottom-up social media, as it existed then, played a real role in that dynamic. And I suspect it may well once again.

Let's use that as a test case and see where it takes your thesis. I'm an optimist on this stuff.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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