Skip to main content

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton takes part in a televised English language debate in Ottawa, April 12, 2011.CHRIS WATTIE

There's going for the youthful, tech-savvy vote, and then there's swinging for the social-media fences.

As the four leaders faced off behind podiums in an otherwise staid, boxy set, NDP Leader Jack Layton made a play for the twittering masses when he came out against Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's tough-on-crime agenda.

Positive youth diversion programs are needed "so that when some troublemaker comes up and tries to tempt them into that life of crime, with the bling and everything else that goes along with it, that instead they've got something positive to do," Mr. Layton deadpanned.

"We've got to protect those vulnerable neighbourhoods," he added, swinging a forefinger at the camera lens directly in front of him.

"And that's been a hashtag fail on this issue."

(Hashtags, for the blessedly uninitiated, are Twitter's version of topic markers. "#Fail" means the same thing it always has but is a notoriously overused word online.)

If the remark's intention was to cause an online stir, it had the desired effect: It was seized upon gleefully by the Canadian Twitterverse; "hashtag fail" was a trending topic for hours after the NDP leader's remark, generating thousands of tweets and retweets.

For all appearances it was a calculated ploy: A press release on the NDP's website crowed that Mr. Layton "scored the signature jab of the night by calling Stephen Harper's crime policies a 'hashtag fail' a twitter reference that brought down the house and set the social media world all atwitter."

But if anything, it underscored the televised debate's focus on optics and volume over substance: The outpouring of incredulous, often ridiculing tweets noted nothing but the incendiary phrases themselves - the opposition parties' thoughts on the Mr. Harper's crime agenda was not so engaging a topic.

The debate itself was an interesting study in the online peanut gallery's ability to out-shout itself. #db8-tagged tweets made up 1 per cent of worldwide Twitter traffic for a very brief period around 8 p.m. ET. "Gilles Duceppe" and "Iggy" were also trending topics worldwide.

According to Ottawa-based digital strategist Mark Blevis, there were about 38,000 debate-related tweets by 11 p.m. ET - almost half Tuesday's total election-related Twitter traffic.

But if the debate failed to shift the parties' political momentum, it represented an interesting social-media milestone: For the first time since the writ dropped, Mr. Blevis figures, original election-related tweets (those written by the twitter users themselves) outnumbered the series of retweets that characterize endlessly repeated election messaging.

Among the four leaders, Mr. Harper's steely, impassive gaze garnered the most online chatter, Mr. Blevis said.

According to numbers crunched for the Canadian Press, that steely gaze garnered 1,474 messages by 9:30 p.m. - some favourable, others less so. That compares with 1,132 messages about crime, 910 about the economy and deficit, 656 about majority and minority governments, 410 about coalitions and 688 about bickering.

The winner of the debate, by sheer online popularity?

Rick Mercer.