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Politics Canadians caring less about politics? Blame Facebook

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Why are some Canadians paying less attention to politics?

Conventionally, the blame is placed on hyper-partisan rhetoric, too few interesting policy ideas, and unappealing and/or indistinguishable candidates.

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No doubt these factors have something to do with it, but they only tell part of the story.

Professionalization of campaigns has washed out some of the more interesting edges and freak occurrences that used to make politics more colourful. But maybe we're paying light attention to politics because, well, we're paying less attention to lots of things.

The digital age has shortened attention spans.

It's not that we don't want to know what's going on, but we feel we have only enough time to know the highlights. There might be something more interesting a click away.

That's why Facebook posts under 70 characters are four times more effective than posts over 140 characters. Put up a web page with 111 words on it and people will read half of them. A page with 593 words? Visitors will read only 28 per cent of what's on the page. It's called "surfing" the Internet with good reason.

Many have fallen in love with the Internet as a source of information. While some love the depth on offer, many find the real appeal lies in the range.

When it comes to news stories, many people prefer to sip, nibble and graze, rather than feast. So when big political stories have a half-life measured in hours, this has something to do with politics – but also our digital restlessness.

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For politicians, there are only two choices: fight the trend, or make it your friend.

Fighting a trend like this may sound noble, but it's probably naïve. Something rarely rewarded in the political world.

So what does going with the trend mean? Here are some things to watch for.

Years ago, photographs of Robert Stanfield bobbling a football and Pierre Trudeau diving into a pool seemed to capture the essence of the choices on offer. Those photos were captured by photojournalists and distributed by news organizations.

Today's political leaders may love having a great speechwriter on staff, but they are wise to put as much effort into hiring a great photographer and videographer.

Images like that of Justin Trudeau dancing with his wife or holding a baby aloft in the palm of his hand travel the Internet instantly and widely. There's no editorial filtering, no awkward questions of balance: each image is a point made with no counterpoint.

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Watch for more of this from all the leaders – a lot more.

With political advertising, the change underway is even more fundamental.

It's popular in some quarters to dismiss political ads built for the Internet on the assumption that unless an ad appears "on TV" it isn't a serious campaign.

But the reality is, more and more political advertising will migrate to the Internet. Voters will be served ads tailored to the issues they care about, targeted to people who live near them and/or share their interests and values. The ads will employ animation, infographics, Go-Pro videos – whatever proves best at rendering dull subjects snappy. And short.

In the past, TV advertising on prime time often meant paying to put your message in front of two people who won't vote for you for every one who might.

Web advertising allows parties to pay only to reach those people who are most likely to vote, who are open to their message, and might share it with friends and followers. With a couple of clicks, audiences can ask for a lawn sign or donate a few bucks.

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How will voters learn about detailed policy ideas? Party efforts to deliver their ideas directly to voters will be more extensive and effective than ever before.

Advertising using Google, Facebook and Twitter tools can allow parties to showcase their tax cut, pipeline, and daycare ideas to those voters who care about these subjects, who are persuadable, and who live in ridings that are winnable.

If paper copies of Red, Blue and Orange Books make an appearance in campaign 2015, it will be more as stage props – you're far more likely to get one in your e-mailbox than your actual mailbox.

If the digital age has challenged our attentiveness to politics, it may yet prove a blessing for those hoping for a new, golden era of voter engagement.

Because more efficient ways of drawing our attention to the choices we can make on the issues we are most interested in, might replace the tendency to know less with a drive to care more.

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