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The University of Guelph's vote mob, video of which went viral on YouTube, has encouraged young people across the country to get involved in the election. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The University of Guelph's vote mob, video of which went viral on YouTube, has encouraged young people across the country to get involved in the election. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Don Tapscott

Why did we ignore Obama's social media lesson? Add to ...

After watching how Barack Obama revolutionized campaigning for the digital age, it's bizarre that, nearly three years later, the parties in our election all ran old-style campaigns of the broadcast era.

The upshot was a social media vacuum that was filled by many voters, primarily young adults, who took the election into their own hands. Using tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Canadian activists disrupted the traditional Canadian campaign, and the NDP was largely the beneficiary.

The Internet changes everything. Pre-Internet, we used to have broadcast elections, where parties bombarded the voters with messages through TV, radio and print. All energy at the national level was devoted to getting out the centrally developed message. Campaign events were painstakingly orchestrated to reinforce the message. Party leaders strove to use the mainstream media to try to pump up the issues on which they had the greatest credibility.

At the riding level, door-to-door canvassers pestered their neighbours into telling them whether they supported the canvasser's party. An enthusiastic supporter would also be asked to put up a sign and donate money. On election day, the parties' canvassers would get as many as possible of their supporters to the polling booth. Effective e-day machines would mean the difference in close ridings.

But, other than on voting day, citizens were almost peripheral to the election process. Their main involvement was to be passive recipients of short campaign ads, often negative ones.

The Obama steamroller transformed this. It was less of a campaign and more of a movement. Mr. Obama's uplifting message of "Yes We Can" was one of optimism and hope, and it struck a responsive chord with the electorate, particularly youth.

Mr. Obama created a platform, MyBarackObama.com, that enabled people to participate in the election. They connected online with like-minded voters in their area, and began to organize their own meetings and help raise funds. Volunteers formed groups based on where they lived or their occupation. By election day, more than 35,000 groups had formed to support Mr. Obama, and they had organized more than 200,000 events.

In February of 2008, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas uploaded onto YouTube an inspiring four-minute musical version of Mr. Obama's New Hampshire concession speech. But will.i.am had nothing to do with the Obama campaign; he was just an enthusiastic supporter. Within two months, the video had been seen by more than 17 million people and was one of the defining moments of the Democratic primaries.

So why weren't these techniques used in our election? To be sure, candidates started their own Facebook pages, and it was easy to order a lawn sign or donate money on any the major parties' websites. But there was no digital open-door policy to let supporters sink their teeth into the meat of the campaign.

So young people took the election into their own hands. As The Globe's Gloria Galloway reported last week, a YouTube video that had young people encouraging other young people to vote against the Tories had been viewed more than 600,000 times. On the day it was released, the video was more popular than those of Lady Gaga.

University of Guelph students posted a "vote mob" video encouraging students across the country to vote. More than 17 similar videos created at other universities were uploaded to LeadNow.ca.

Gracen Johnson helped organize the first vote mob in Guelph. She told The Globe: "The Canada that I am proud of is not the Canada that I am living in right now, so I would like to restore the country that I feel proud of. And I think the way to do that is to engage people who are educated, informed, to vote."

The main beneficiary was Jack Layton and the NDP. One reason was that his campaign was more forward looking and optimistic, evocative of Mr. Obama's. My research suggests that young people don't react well to negative advertising, either. They also tend to be more progressive in their politics. In the 2008 U.S. election, young voters overwhelmingly went Democratic. Here, they skewed to the NDP.

Historically, a smaller percentage of young people turn out to vote than other age groups and, as recently as a month ago, the projected youth vote in Canada looked dismal. Perhaps not this election, though. Young people have the means to mobilize their peers. It's truly remarkable that the political parties didn't see this coming.

Don Tapscott is the co-author of Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World .

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