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Minister of Industry Tony Clement speaks to media following a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa February 2, 2011. (Blair Gable/Reuters/Blair Gable/Reuters)
Minister of Industry Tony Clement speaks to media following a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa February 2, 2011. (Blair Gable/Reuters/Blair Gable/Reuters)

Canada is Tweeting. Leaders, though, aren't listening Add to ...

All Mike Marsman wanted to know was why his MP had stopped following him.

The London, Ont., father of two has been using the microblogging service Twitter since 2007, and had been following his Member of Parliament, Ed Holder, for more than a year before the election campaign began.

But after he sided with a Twitter user who disagreed with the candidate, Mr. Marsman discovered the politician had unfollowed him. He sent a message asking why, and heard nothing in response.

"I am a bit of an undecided. It was a perfect opportunity to really win my vote, and he didn't," Mr. Marsman said on Friday. "His method of engaging online pretty much lost my vote."

It's being touted as the first social media campaign, but many political candidates trying to get elected on May 2 seem to regard Twitter as a soap-box rather than a conference call, using their 140-character limit to swagger or announce policy, but passing up opportunities to engage voters directly.

On Wednesday, Olivier Maurice, a Quebec real estate broker, sent a Tweet to party leaders Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe saying he would vote for whoever addressed his riding of Brossard-LaPrairie first.

As of Friday, he hadn't received a single message in reply.

"I doubt any of them will answer," he said on Twitter. "I'm just 1 vote in a riding won via Recount!"

In Kamloops, a Grade 11 social studies class at Westsyde Secondary School started a Twitter feed under the name @BlueWave94 to ask questions of the leaders.

Jeremy Reid, who teaches the class of 30, said he came up with the idea as a way to persuade his students they could connect directly with the political system. But so far, no one has answered their questions, which focus on topics from the harmonized sales tax to the legalization of marijuana.

"We aren't getting any responses, so we're trying a new strategy of sending the questions to our local candidates as well as the federal party leaders," Mr. Reid said. "We're hoping we'll get some answers that way."

His students post the questions using a large touch-screen computer mounted on their classroom wall, and will continue to do so throughout the campaign, he said.

"I think Twitter's great because it's a big equalizer," Mr. Reid said. "In the past, we could have mailed in a letter and get a form response back in six weeks. This is a little more instant."

But few candidates seem to have grasped the instantaneous connection possible through Twitter, or the impact it could have to communicate directly with voters in this way. Most seem to think they're in an echo chamber, rather than a digital rope line.

"I think if you set up a channel of communication and then ignore people speaking in it, it's a problem," said Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen's University. "It creates expectations when none existed before."

And the parties stand to lose at least a few votes as a result.

A man in Halifax offered to vote for either Mr. Ignatieff or Mr. Harper, depending on who would "tweet at me first." If he didn't hear from either, he said he'd vote Green.

A West Coast user offered to vote for his Conservative candidate if he received a "retweet acknowledging the Canucks being Canada's team these playoffs!!!"

Of course, there are exceptions. Conservative MP Tony Clement, long celebrated for his use of social media, has been responding to questions from constituents directly, as well as regularly thanking people for their comments and support.

Even Ed Holder, the Conservative candidate who unfollowed a constituent, has been personally answering Twitter questions, even using the forum to express his opposition to a same-sex marriage ban.

But Mr. Marsman said he is still disappointed at the level of political discourse he has encountered via the Twitter campaign, and surprised by the fact that any candidate would reject him online.

"It's like not shaking someone's hand. It really is," he said. "You wouldn't take your hand away walking by someone, whether you thought they were going to vote for you or not."

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