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Supporters hold sings ahead of the Ontario Elections Leaders debate at the CBC building in Toronto on May 27, 2018.

Mark Blinch

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist

As the campaign for the Ontario provincial election heats up and polls swing in unexpected directions, Doug Ford continues to drive around Ontario in a bus emblazoned with his oft-repeated slogan: For the People. It’s a neat distillation of the unlikely appeal of the late Rob Ford’s less affable, less experienced brother. For all his rough edges, Doug Ford draws on the same currents of populism that have become so dominant a force in the Anglo political world.

It’s a familiar narrative now: First Brexit in Britain, and then the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. marked out a shift in the political tenor – one that, depending on one’s political leanings, either purported to respond to the cries of those left behind by globalism, or instead, fostered a nationalist, even xenophobic braggadocio.

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What is clear is that there was a historical shift at work. But it is also hard not to notice that the populist uprising emerged at around the same time that social media, the defining technological change of our era, also became truly mainstream. The parallel streams of a medium that has at times been said to represent the voice of the people, and a shift in political currents that catered to populist sentiment was difficult to ignore, as if technological change and the more historic sort were intimately intertwined.

That notion has led us to think of social media as a kind of bellwether for voter intention. For each of the Brexit and Trump victories, pundits noisily pointed to the missed message of social media after the fact – that the message of the unheard Trump voter or Britain’s Leave voters were there all along. Now, in Ontario, a glance at, say, Google Trends, which measures what people are searching for, reveals far more interest in Mr. Ford than his rivals Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath.

It is thus tempting to wonder – despite the reversal of polls that saw the PCs with a commanding lead – whether or not such statistics reveal another populist victory on the horizon.

But the predictive power of social media is often overblown, or at least misunderstood. That doesn’t mean, however, that the tension-filled boxes on Facebook and Twitter aren’t important to elections – just that their significance is of a different sort. And as social media has become an ordinary part of society and politics, we need to understand what it is best at: not as a predictor of elections, but a way to understand voter frustration before it becomes mainstream.

In one sense, social media is simply another space through which politicians and parties attempt to persuade voters. At the same time, the nature of social media has changed the tenor of political messaging. The NDP’s cheeky, clever campaign of showing Andrea Horwath peeking under a table looking for the PC’s missing costed platform is the kind of tactic that would appear sophomoric and strange in a TV ad but fits Twitter perfectly. Arguably, one could say a similar thing of the Liberal’s unusual approach in an ad that features Kathleen Wynne apologizing for not being popular while unapologetically staking out a proud record. Despite the fact that ad appears on TV, its inversion of traditional celebrity politics is inherently linked to the candour of social media.

That shift in tone has ostensibly emerged out of a sense that social media is part of a change that asks political leaders to evince authenticity. While, for example, Mr. Trump has come under intense criticism for his sometimes flippant, occasionally bizarre tweets, they nonetheless still capture why he is so popular among his base: His manner, his approach and his style are all deliberate contraventions of accepted norms.

One might then argue that social media’s primary function in electoral politics has been about a shift in tone, an effect that is more broadly cultural than about voting choices. But we have also usually thought social media functioned as a kind of analytic tool to track the trends that lead to a politician such as Mr. Trump becoming popular – that it is a kind of broad social oscilloscope that, if looked at correctly, can let us see who is trending in a manner that leads from online success to the electoral sort. Thus, the lesson of Brexit and Mr. Trump is ignore social media at your peril, as it can be used to predict the outcome of electoral races.

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But in light of the revelations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – in which data leaked by a researcher may have then been used to manipulate voters on Facebook – our ability to trust social media as either a simple barometer of public sentiment, or mere arena for political debate, has changed. What is clear is that, like other sources of information in society, what appears and trends online can be significantly influenced by money and power. Making matters even more complicated is that the global, open nature of social media means foreign interference in elections is now too a risk, a phenomenon that only a short while ago seemed like the stuff of paranoid fantasy. It is thus hard to argue that we should look to social media as an augur of what’s to come or what the people are thinking; the situation has become too fraught and complex for such idealized notions of Twitter or Facebook as paragons of democracy.

But perhaps social media can still save democracy. After all, for its raucous nature and many flaws, what it excels at is surfacing overlooked and underrepresented views. There have been a slew of movements that have either coalesced or found a voice online: Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo campaign or the slowly growing awareness of Indigenous issues in this country. There are, too, the more sinister dimensions of social media: how, for example, trends in gaming and other niche online communities prefigured the rise of the alt-right and the shocking re-emergence into the mainstream of white supremacists and racism writ large.

What social media thus does is provide a way to spot emerging trends, and in particular those marked out by a difference between mainstream media narratives and the nascent movements bubbling up from the depths of society. That was the lesson of Mr. Trump and Brexit. Sometimes those trends will be a force for good, and at others, a cause for serious worry. But it is precisely that stark difference between what exists in the mainstream and what pops up on corners of Twitter that reveals the power of social media.

As the candidates continue to zigzag the province, political debate continues endlessly online. But as we stand on the cusp of another potential populist revolt, it behooves us to pay attention to social media not as a tool to predict, but a way to track for good and ill what voters are saying. After all, the roots of populism lie precisely in a pronounced contrast between what is said on TV and what is said in the break room. Social media is the way we connect the two – and in the process, form a stronger democracy.

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