A communications expert says social media has become a â€œcriticalâ€ component in running an election campaign, but warns there are risks to the tool as well.
The use of various platforms has exploded over the last number of years as a place to gather information, connect and converse. And seeing as most platforms are free â€“ itâ€™s a good way to get a message out in an economical way.
For these reasons, itâ€™s essential for campaigns to be connected and engaging on social media, said SFU professor of communications Peter Chow-White.
â€œFour or five years ago, we were asking the question, â€˜Should you be on social media?â€™ Nowadays, it would be odd if you were not,â€ he said.
The U.S. presidential election race between then-vice president Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 solidified the role of television in political campaigns, he noted, and today, social media has become just as essential a place to be.
â€œBefore (the 1960 U.S. presidential election) being on television wasnâ€™t so important. After that you had to be on television or be ready for it and understand it. Weâ€™ve gone across that threshold in the world in social media in our society. You expect people to be on these things and this is where you go to access information about them.â€
Chow-White says if candidates are not online, it indicates â€œperhaps somebody is not quite as in touch or interested in connecting as other candidates.â€
There are many benefits to being active on social media during a campaign, he noted.
â€œYou get to represent your own message. Youâ€™re solely responsible for your own message. Itâ€™s not filtered or framed by any media outlet whatsoever or anybody else. You have that control. But you also have a direct line where you can interact directly across geography. You donâ€™t have to be at a town hall, you can hold a Twitter town hall. It provides that opportunity in a campaign,â€ he said.
But the danger, warns Chow-White, is saying or doing something deemed unacceptable.
â€œYou have to be careful. Itâ€™s just like any other form of communication. You have to be careful what you Tweet, what you like, what you become associated with on your accounts. Weâ€™ve seen improperly used personal accounts be connected to a profile and that ends campaigns very, very quickly.â€
Chow-White said while politicians generally want messages to be positive during elections, on social media candidates can encounter negative messages, and those who donâ€™t agree with their message.
â€œTo deal with trolling, to handle that, is to call it what it is and address that in a social media account. Itâ€™s an opportunity within this negative type of behaviour from users,â€ he said. â€œBlocking trollers and not responding to legitimate questions are two different things. Blocking trollers is a legitimate strategy, itâ€™s a logical thing to do, but to not engage relevant questions from voters, if youâ€™re being ignored by a politician, is that someone youâ€™re going to vote for?â€
Chow-White said itâ€™s interesting that in the last provincial election, he was asked who he thought would win. While everyone expected the BC NDP to be victorious, Chow-White noted at the time the BC Liberals were much more active on social media. Based on their social media activity, he predicted the Liberals would win.
â€œAnd oddly enough they did,â€ he said. â€œIt was interesting that that observation, thereâ€™s no causation to it, but that kind of observation have some sort of relationship to them winning, with a much better social media campaign. Did that make a difference? I donâ€™t know, maybe. If it made a five per cent difference and put them over the hump, thatâ€™s a big difference.â€
He also pointed to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was active on social media and made it to office.
â€œAnd social media probably played a role in that,â€ he noted.
But as in all aspects of campaigns, social media accounts probably wonâ€™t showcase someoneâ€™s true personality.
â€œIf youâ€™re looking for the reality of somebody, a campaign is probably not the best place to find it. Politicians who are good at being authentic, whether thatâ€™s a real portrayal or itâ€™s something theyâ€™re emphasizing about their personality, thatâ€™s as old as campaign strategies go. Not just what you do on social media, but how you use it, can reflect that.â€
We asked Surreyâ€™s mayoral candidates to describe their social media strategy. Hereâ€™s what they had to say:
One Surreyâ€™s Barinder Rasode
Twitter @BarinderRasode (5,271 followers, following 4,816, 10,945 tweets as of Nov. 3)
Social media is a great way for me to connect with people and quickly respond to issues in Surrey, which improves communication, transparency and accountability. It provides a new avenue to stimulate citizen engagement, particularly with the younger generation who often feel disconnected from government and their elected officials. I also think social media is a great tool to interact with people in a fun way, which allows people get to know my personality and other interests.
â€” Barinder Rasode (@BarinderRasode) November 1, 2014
Independent Vikram Bajwa
Twitter @Bajwavikram4may (33 followers, 314 following, 496 tweets as of Nov. 3)
Social Media will change the power balance in Vancouver and Surrey. Even though Surrey residents/voters are not as active as Vancouverites, they still seem to catch up the latest from social media. We continue to promote it and it will be instrumental in change in Surrey.
Surrey Firstâ€™s Linda Hepner
Twitter @LindaHepner (1,945 followers, 595 following, 1,537 tweets as of Nov. 3)
While mainstream media is still the biggest source of news for most voters, social media allows campaigns the opportunity to supplement the news stories with more detailed media.
Secondly, social media allows campaigns to interact directly with voters. While most voters share common priority issues, individuals often have concerns unique to their circumstances and social media facilitates a direct, two-way communications channel on those topics.
Finally, a challenge with social media is the reality that with the distance and sometimes anonymity of online communications, people often go online to â€œtrollâ€ public figures rather than engage in constructive dialogue. At Surrey First, the general philosophy is to engage in constructive commentary where possible, and address negative points where we feel it necessary to set the record straight.
â€” Linda Hepner (@LindaHepner) October 6, 2014
Independent John Edwards
Twitter @edwards4mayor (212 followers, 559 following, 605 tweets as of Nov. 3)
I am using Twitter and Facebook to get my message out and more importantly to "educate" youth on the importance of voting. Social media is a great way to connect to potential voters and stay abreast of their issues.
â€” John Edwards (@edwards4mayor) November 2, 2014
Independent Grant Rice
Twitter @grantrice (106 followers, 253 following, 44 tweets as of Nov. 3)
My social media campaign consists of my Twitter account where I send out tweets about the issues that have been discussed at the mayoral meetings and to advertise new posts on my website. As I add policy ideas and other posts to my site. I also announce these on my Facebook page.
â€” Grant Rice (@grantrice) November 1, 2014
Safe Surrey Coalitionâ€™s Doug McCallum
Twitter @mccallum4mayor (513 followers, 758 following, 675 tweets as of Nov. 3)
I and the Safe Surrey Coalition have embraced social media as an important tool of campaigning in real time. I think it is particularly valuable in hearing the concerns, opinions, priorities and ideas of residents, and I have been happy to engage with voters this way. We have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and YouTube.
That being said, social media is a secondary tool to meeting voters in person. Our campaign is particularly focused on being out in the community knocking on doors, participating in community forums and attending meetings with hundreds of different groups. There is no replacement for face-to-face contact.
The modern political campaign is about balance. Social media is a medium that allows us to reach more residents and engage in variety of different fashions. At the end of the day, however, my number one priority whether in campaigning or serving in elected office is to be in the community dealing directly with citizens.
â€” Doug McCallum (@mccallum4mayor) November 1, 2014
Independent John Wolanski
Twitter @GoJohnnyDotCa (7 followers, 9 following, 3 tweets as of Nov. 3. Last tweet 2011.)
No website or Facebook