Elizabeth Dubois researches social media and Canadian politics at the Oxford Internet Institute.
In an era of digital diplomacy and e-democracy, politicians are expected to play their political role both online and offline. Twitter is one tool which politicians around the world have embraced as a way to connect with those they represent and broadcast information to the public. Canada's major political party leaders are no different – and the leaders' different approaches say a lot about how they communicate in the months ahead of a federal election.
A political party leader is expected to be vocal on any and all political issues facing their constituents. The leader is looked to to set their party's agenda, to communicate issues to the public, to garner a following, and to understand the needs of that following and of Canadians more broadly. Of course the leader has many other responsibilities, these are just some of the main ones which Twitter is particularly good at facilitating.
Canada's political party leaders are all active on Twitter but their patterns of use are not the same. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is known for her prolific Twitter account. Her 20,600 tweets since joining Twitter in September 2008 is nearly seven times as many as either the Prime Minister's English-language account (@PMHarper) or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's (@ThomasMulcair) all-time totals, and over three times as many as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau). But even among the three party leaders who tweet considerably less, there are telling differences.
By the numbers
From Sept. 18, 2014, when members returned to Parliament after the summer break, to Jan. 17, 2015, @PMHarper has made 283 tweets. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau both have only one account which posts both English and French tweets, with 288 and 574 tweets made respectively. Notably both leaders often opt to post direct translations of tweets, so the following analysis considers unique tweets only (193 for Mr. Mulcair and 319 for Mr. Trudeau).
Over the course of the fall there are some expected ebbs and flows. (See chart above.) The start of the session prompted all three accounts to post multiple tweets a day which slowed as the weeks passed. On the week following Christmas, all three accounts refrained from posting and on weekends there were often, but not always, fewer tweets made. Mr. Trudeau's account was the only one from a leader to consistently tweet at relatively stable levels throughout most of the sampling period. For example, Mr. Trudeau's account made many tweets about the by-elections in November when the accounts of Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair were both relatively inactive on Twitter.
The differences in topics of tweets highlight the biggest differences in the leaders' approach to Twitter (see above chart). About 25 per cent of Mr. Harper's tweets had an international focus, for example, the threat of the Islamic State, or United Nations and G20 meetings, while only 3 per cent of his posts had a provincial or local community focus. Issues facing Canadians broadly such as economic, social and other issues together make up only 19 per cent of Mr. Harper's tweets. In contrast, 34 per cent of Mr. Mulcair's and 41 per cent of Mr. Trudeau's tweets focused on economic, social and other issues facing Canadians with only 11 per cent each focusing on international issues.
Mr. Trudeau matches this focus on international issues with equal numbers of tweets about provincial or community issues. Mr. Trudeau's tweets span a wider range of policy issues and are more evenly spread across areas as compared to either other leader.
Finally, for all three leaders a large proportion (between 34 and 39 per cent) of tweets make reference to no specific policy issue but instead to meetings they attended and events of the day. For Mr. Harper these tweets often include condolence messages, greetings for a given holiday and references to sporting events. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau also include some of these messages but also tend to post photos from events and thank you notes to those they meet with.
Digital diplomacy vs. e-democracy
Mr. Harper's use of Twitter can be thought of as in line with digital diplomacy. Digital diplomacy on a very basic level is the use of the Internet to solve foreign policy issues. @PMHarper is an account with an international focus and which tends to opt toward non-partisan statements. Expressing policy positions or promoting a policy agenda to the Canadian public does not appear to be a goal of the account. Instead, the aim seems to be more about establishing a presence online as a world leader and digitally demonstrating Canada's connection to other nations.
Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, to varying degrees, appear to use Twitter more in line with e-democracy which is more about advancing a democracy than foreign affairs. Both accounts attempt to connect with Canadian citizens explicitly, for example by reminding them to vote, providing shareable content and sending thank you messages. Neither account maintains as large a focus on international issues at Mr. Harper, instead both put increased focus on social and other issues facing Canadians. Expressing views on policy and generating interest in, and engagement with, their respective parties are likely aims of these accounts.
Ultimately, Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau are all active social media users with something to gain from Twitter. The different strategies which drives their use can help others understand what they are signing up for when they click "follow."