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Stephen Harper online! But don't call it social media

Just when I thought the golden age of social media nonsense had passed, along comes Stephen Harper.

It's agenda time in Ottawa. Parliament has returned from that winter break we all heard so much about, and now it's the season of budgets and throne speeches and responses to throne speeches and whatever it is they do next. But this year, there's a twist: I read in the news that the Prime Minister is " going viral." In fact, there's an announcement on his own website.

"Do you have questions about Canada's Economic Action Plan or where Canada is headed?" it reads. "Prime Minister Stephen Harper is standing by to answer your questions."

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Democratic engagement via social media or merely an online broadcast to promote yourself? The kids aren't fooled.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the moment they cast his lot in with the dinner-hour infomercial operators of the world was the moment I knew that this isn't democratic renewal incarnate: It's another half-baked social media gong show in the offing.

Let's take a step back. The outreach is a collaboration between the Prime Minister's Office and Google, the corporate entity behind YouTube. Last week, YouTube rebroadcast a live feed of Mr. Harper delivering a self-congratulatory speech in the House of Commons. The main event, however, comes March 16 when he will participate in a virtual town hall, answering a series of preselected questions from YouTube users. The questions he'll answer will be determined by a vote to see which is the most popular. Democracy!

On one hand, it's hard to argue that any project to boost voter engagement isn't a good thing. Google has put together a neat little site to collect questions, which it somewhat hopefully titled "Your Interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper." And the Tories have been trumpeting the proposal as an outreach to a new generation of Canadians.

With the Prime Minister poised at his keyboard, thousands of hopeful interviewers have put their questions in the box. The clear leaders right now are variations on "Why won't you legalize cannabis?" The Internet wants what it wants.

As an online broadcast, a public-relations exercise transmitted over the Web instead of the airwaves, this is all well and good. But let's not confuse it for actual social media engagement, the kind that - as the Tories imply - will reach out to the country's disaffected citizenry and their distempered children. In fact, the Government of Canada, and the various parties that form it, seems constitutionally incapable of managing real social media involvement.

Stephen Harper has a Facebook page, which is very good at sitting there. He already has a Twitter account, which somebody uses to issue 140-character press releases of marginal interest in his name. I know he's not using it to tweet himself; I was watching him deliver a self-congratulatory speech on YouTube when a tweet rolled in from him announcing that he was, at that moment, delivering a self-congratulatory speech on YouTube. This is not how it's done.

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The thing is, social media doesn't work with the iron-grip communications strategy that the Tories are so fond of. Even the Tories know this, and yet this is the government that thought it would be exciting to barf out the federal budget on Twitter, one line at a time.

"Social media is changing the way Canadians interact with politicians," read the boilerplate statement from the Prime Minister's Office, announcing the YouTube project.

Indeed it is. It lets Canadians interact with the famous Facebook group called "Can this Onion Ring get more fans than Stephen Harper?" (So far, advantage onion ring.)

It gives Canadians access to the online groups that drummed up anger against prorogation, putting a technical issue on the national agenda and eventually leading thousands into the streets.

And it gives Canadians a peek into the lives and minds of politicians who are genuinely willing to share. In fact, Mr. Harper's own tech-savvy Heritage Minister, James Moore, provides a great example of how a high-ranking politician can use Twitter to simultaneously connect with constituents and promote his agenda.

But it doesn't inspire Canadians to watch Commons replays or canned Q&As. Social media doesn't mesh with the way governments in general - and this one in specific - do business.

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Succeeding with social media comes down to being honest, having a frank, unfiltered voice and letting personality go along with policy. So much of the communication that's come out of this government involves enforcing message discipline, stonewalling unwelcome enquiries and not saying anything that may make the wrong kind of news. If you want to succeed in social media, give us something human to socialize with. Is there any more than an infinitesimal chance that Mr. Harper might say anything unexpected or interesting in his YouTube live chat? I'd wager not (though I stand ready and eager to be surprised).

If you want people to pay attention, give Helena Guergis a Twitter account and strand her at an airport. Put Jason Kenney on ChatRoulette; it's good for opening minds. Maybe if Mr. Harper used his Facebook account to make his case against the onion ring, he'd get some traction. And therein lies the great injustice of social media: Governments can't use it the way the rest of us do.

There's nothing wrong with harnessing YouTube to stage an ask-the-Prime Minister event. But it's not the future of democratic engagement, it's not the evolution of social media. Mr. Harper's not going viral, he's just got a new communication strategy. It is what it is. Call now! Prime Ministers are standing by.

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