Are 140 characters enough to make or break a federal election campaign?
Canadians are about to find out.
The defeat of the Conservative government unleashed a torrent of political tweets. By midafternoon Sunday, more than 14,000 tweets had been sent out during the first day-and-a-half of the campaign related to the election or Canadian politics. With a potential reach of more 16 million people, it was a dramatic spike from the less than 2,000 tweets on the same topics the weekend before.
If there was ever a question before, it's clear now: Canada's first social media election is under way.
The raw commentary on Twitter is often anonymous and occasionally obscene. For parties with the proper tracking software, what potential voters say on social media can provide real-time feedback on the campaign to find out what's working and what isn't.
"That kind of information, to me, would be golden for a campaign," said Mark Blevis, an Ottawa-based digital public affairs strategist. Mr. Blevis provided the above-mentioned statistics to The Globe and Mail.
At a high level, Mr. Blevis said, tracking Twitter lets campaigns know what issues are resonating with voters. But parties could also drill down deeper and reach out to potential supporters.
Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign is seen as the watershed moment for social media in politics. Mr. Obama's team used the online tools to make their candidate more relatable, while at the same time organizing local online groups with the goal of identifying people who would then be more physically engaged in the campaign by volunteering or donating money.
New Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi also won praise for using social media in the right ways - being genuine and responsive online rather than simply spewing news releases.
Mr. Nenshi's chief of staff Chima Nkemdirim said personal responses online from the candidate and an openness to critical feedback on policy issues are what worked last year.
"There was a good chance he'd actually tweet you back," said Mr. Nkemdirim, who served as Mr. Nenshi's campaign manager. "From the early signs, I don't see any of the [federal]parties using social media the way we used it in Calgary."
Conservative MPs increasingly took to Twitter over the past year - a loosening of the tight message control the party is known for under Leader Stephen Harper.
It's no secret that Twitter feeds from politicians like Tony Clement are must-reads for journalists and political junkies. The former industry minister is famously known for tweeting government policy - such as overturning a CRTC decision on usage-based billing on the Internet.
There are an estimated 17 million Canadians on Facebook, but fewer than five million on Twitter. The might of Facebook - particularly as it grows in popularity with older Canadians - means parties must ensure their sites are current and engaging. But the immediacy of Twitter - combined with the speed that it can transmit snapshots and news story links electronically from anyone, anywhere, via smartphones - adds a new intensity to this election.
Organizers with the Liberals and the NDP say they plan to link up various leader town hall meetings online. That means that the standard community-centre gatherings that take place in the evenings for a few hundred local residents will now be available live online to all. Both parties say they also plan to have the leaders answer online comments in these and other forums.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is also expected to post regular blogs. So far, however, all three leaders appear to be ignoring the advice of social media experts by issuing tweets in the tone of press releases rather than casual conversation.
The parties will certainly be tracking the tweets of the various candidates and their staffers, ready to pounce at the first sign of a slip-up.
"You have a brain wave and bang: it's out there in the public domain," said Tom Flanagan, who has directed past Conservative campaigns in which candidates were urged not to blog in order to stay out of trouble. "I see it as a problem, but [Twitter]is so new, it hasn't really been tested yet … Maybe the one saving grace is there's only 140 characters, so there's perhaps a limited amount of damage you can do saying something stupid on Twitter."
Does it work?
Dr. Anatoliy Gruzd, the founder of the social media lab at Dalhousie University, said the emerging Twitter tracking software is clearly of use to parties. While still in its infancy, he said, the data can provide real-time feedback, complementing traditional public-opinion polling.
"There are so many people using these tools and it's real-time," he said.
The professor will also be watching to see if Canadian parties learned the lessons of recent election campaigns in Canada and the United States. Efforts to engage voters by having them make their own YouTube ads or other interactive efforts are far better than simply sending out one-way messages, he said.
Nonetheless, a fundamental unknown remains. Does the politician who has the most Facebook friends, the highest Twitter score or the most iPhone app downloads necessarily mean more people will put down the mobile phone and pick up a ballot?
The results of last fall's U.S. midterm elections suggest yes. The site All Facebook reported that in 74 per cent of House of Representative races and 81 per cent of Senate races, a candidate's Facebook fan count was an accurate predictor of victory.
Will the same pattern play out in Canada? Mr. Blevin thinks social media may swing a few ridings. Dr. Gruzd said he will be watching to see if social media persuades Canadians to vote.
For now, he said, "We don't really know."