I recently covered the Manning Centre’s Networking Conference for my newspaper, and attended a panel called Technology and politics in the 21st century. Industry Minister James Moore, Treasury Board President Tony Clement and Colin McKay from Google spoke about how technology and social media have changed the political campaigning landscape.
I remember when I was in high school and got my first email address in 1996. It was a Hotmail address that I still use today for junk mail and lists. I was struck however, when Moore said that 1997 was the first federal election where political parties had websites, followed by the 2000 election campaign in which tech-savvy individual campaigns got their own website. In today’s digital age, it seems like those things have always been with us.
Moore went on to describe how technology changed the game in 2004, when “almost everyone had websites that were not controlled by the party.” This was also the start of personal blogs, which sometimes got a few candidates in trouble because they were posting their unfiltered thoughts on the internet, and without approval from the central party command structure. He described the 2008 election as the Facebook campaign, and the most recent one in 2011, it was the Twitter campaign. In this federal election year, he said, the challenge for candidates and political parties will be unlike any other when it comes to using technology to reach voters and win campaigns.
With the many different social media outlets and technology avenues available for political candidates, there will likely be a decentralization of political party campaigns, Moore said.
“Decentralization, the opportunities for decentralization of the dissemination of information in unique ways for individual candidates in ways that make sense for their districts has never been more diversified before in Canadian history, which is a great thing, but the challenges and risks for political parties therein is extraordinary. You have this tiering away of national campaigns,” Mr. Moore told attendees of the Manning Centre Networking conference on March 6. “Broadcasting is dying, narrowcasting is growing. … The challenges in 2015 will be unlike any campaign before in a candidate’s history as on a local and national level we try to engage in two different approaches of whole cohorts of voters.”
Looking back at the evolution of how political parties reached out to voters is interesting. In a way, politicians are more accessible to their constituents given the instantaneous nature of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But in a way, also, perhaps the significance of politics and public policy has been lost, whittled down to 140 characters and selfies at events to prove engagement. And, the question must be asked, are they really engaging the general public, or has social media become an “echo chamber” of sorts, as more people seek out information online that conform to their own world view?
It’s a discussion that the traditional media might be worried about having. Former Sun News Ottawa bureau chief David Akin tweeted about this issue today with former CBC reporter Elly Alboim and others:
I believe Akin is right. Alboim and Gerald Butts also make some good points:
So, has social media become an echo chamber in which users are merely looking for information that reinforce their views? If so, how does this allow politicians to truly engage voters, and gain new support rather than just talking to people who already share their vision?
Clement said that one of the biggest advantages for politicians to use social media is so that they can engage, speak and interact directly with voters. “Part of what we do as politicians, how we both react and try to be proactive, I think it’s now incumbent upon us, if we want to be successful politicians, successful in our job at projecting ideas and principles, we need to keep on top of technology,” he said, noting he now has an Instagram account which he uses as a different way to communicate to his constituents and Canadians in general. “It’s become part of a table of how I can talk about my day and interact with people that I didn’t use two years ago.”
In today’s digital age, each major political party is using “big data to craft their message, to target their message, to communicate on particular issues to audiences,” Clement said. “We’re living in an age where things are changing rapidly.”
All of the technology, however, cannot replace going door-to-door and interacting with people in real time, face to face, Clement added. I think this is key. With all the technology out there, I think people still want information and they still want to have meaningful conversations.
As McKay from Google said, there is an appetite for more information in politics as people go online to search for information. He noted that people check on candidates or issues at least 14 times before making a decision on who to vote for. Additionally, “how to vote” was the one search in Canada last year in the “how to” category, he said.
“Digital tools are allowing voters to connect with politicians,” Mr. McKay said, noting that politicians are able to reach more people through social media than the traditional media. “The web is changing policy and political outcomes. … The landscape has changed.”
Indeed, it has.