Why Election 41 is Not Canada's Social Media Election Thursday April 7, 2011

We all know that Canadians are heading to the polls for first time since Social Media crept into our daily consciousness. Canadian mainstream media has be salivating at the so-called Twitter and Facebook Revolutions across the middle east and recent social media successes of Barack Obama and Naheed Nenshi. Because of which, most national news outlets are jumping on the Social Media bandwagon and transposing those scenarios on to Election 41, dubbing it Canada’s Twitter Election.

While Social Media will play a part in the remainder of the campaign, I can say with almost certainty that Election 2011 will not be ‘won’ by a Social Media Movement.

Why The 2011 Election is not Canada's Social Media Election

… and here’s why.

A Good Social Media Campaign is about Influence and Momentum

Anyone who has ever run a successful Social Media campaign will tell you that the returns on these campaigns are never instantaneous. A successful Social Media campaign takes time, patience and a whole lot of hard work.

The mainstream media loves to portray the big successful Social Media campaigns of the past few years as these amazing brightly coloured rockets of excitement, which shot out of nowhere to captivate our collective imaginations. Which is all find and dandy, but it’s far from the reality. Rather a well orchestrated Social Media campaign is a slow and tedious grind. But with steady persistence and a bit of luck it can be turned into an avalanche of activity and excitement at the right time.

Of course the most popular example is Barak Obama’s grassroots online campaign. Every media outlet loves to champion this as the quintessential template for a political Social Media campaign. But anyone who followed the campaign, understands that it didn’t just appear on September 1st, 2008. No, the true momentum started building during the Democratic Leadership primaries of 2007. Where excited and influential supporters (Think Oprah) started jumping on board the Obama-train. From there it quietly built it’s momentum, like a small snowball, until November 2008 when Obama was elected.

Another, more local, example is the Social Media campaign of Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi’s. For those who followed the municipal campaign for much of 2010, they’ll tell you that Nenshi’s campaign didn’t start on August 12th. Rather his campaign started gaining traction with an influential circle of supporters way back in April of 2010. It started with an innocent little Facebook page. From there it shifted gears from a small group of excited supporters to a full on political movement. The campaign quietly built a solid online foundation; picking-up casual supporters and influential champions (something which I wrote about early in the Municipal election) up until October, where Naheed was elected Mayor of Calgary.

Which brings me back to Election 41.

Don’t get me wrong, I cherish the Canadian Parliamentary system. Especially the ability of opposition parties to force a non-confidence vote on minority governments. Unfortunately, an unplanned election doesn’t provide the most conducive environment to build a powerful online movement. Successful Social Media campaigns, especially in the political realm take time and patience; something which is not available to any political organization during a spur of the moment two month campaign.

The suddenness of this election means that any real sustaining momentum or movement won’t be able to gain traction until it’s far too late.

This isn’t a Clean Slate of Choices

Using the Obama and Nenshi examples, one of the key elements in both scenarios was that it was a clean slate for the respective electorate populations. In the US, George W. Bush had finished his last term as president. Because of which, there was a fresh slate of political figures vying for the leadership of the two national parties. In the Nenshi example, we had an incumbent mayor who was stepping down after years at the helm, allowing a fresh new slate of challengers to replace him. One of the key factors in both situations, was that there was an unusual opportunity of change – an opportunity which is easy to rally a grassroots movement around and to captivate an audience.

Meanwhile in the run up to Election 41, there really isn’t the same sort of urgency or freshness to Canada’s political parties. Most of the leaders, with Michael Ignatieff as the lone oddity, have been at the helm of their respective parties for quite sometime. There is a national familiarity and sense of repetitiveness with this election and it’s showing with the underlying national feeling of apathy.

And yes, a case could be made that there is a different sort of urgency in this election. One where it is either a push for a Conservative Majority or to defend a Conservative Minority, but it’s not the same as a clean political slate. Many Canadians are already deeply entrenched in their loyalties to one party or the other. There isn’t the same level of excitement or variety during an election with already establish party leaders and a series of stale agendas.

In a clean slate political environment, there is a inherit new sense of excitement and opportunity. There is also an unusual amount of undecided voters. Maybe blame it on the attention span of the Gen X’ers, Gen Ys and The Millennial, but there really isn’t buzz or sense of newness with this election. In addition, there isn’t a bevy of undecided voters looking for a party to represent their values. So an online movement from either party is going to be hard pressed to gain any sort of traction, especially in a short two month time period.

What Does it All Mean

Now don’t get me wrong, Social Media will play a part in Election 2011. But I think it would be foolish to think that it will have as big as an impact as the mainstream media is hoping for. There are far too many situational factors working against the Social Media organizers of either party to truly cultivate any real momentum for their causes.

I’ve been watching the proceedings from the comfort of my DC apartment and from simple observations, I’m are not seeing the same sort of buzz creeping into Canadian’s online conversations. The rhetoric is there in snippets, but we are not seeing the heavy influences on either network championing a Conservative, Liberal or NDP agenda. Yes, there have been a couple of blips. For example the campaign to have Elizabeth May added to the leaders debate gained some traction and there was a bit of a ground swirl revolving around the Ignateuff-Harper debate. But overall the conversation has been quiet and subdued.

It’s because of these factors that I’m pretty confident that Social Media won’t be as big of a factor in 2011. But that’s not to say that Social Media’s influence in the political spectrum is dead. One only needs to start looking at the grassroots movements cultivating in Alberta for the upcoming provincial election in 2012 to see that it will continue to be as important as ever.

A quick peak online sees the perfect storm for Social Media to wield it’s heavy influence. You have an incumbent Premier stepping down, a growing group of fresh faced Progressive Conservative leadership candidates gaining traction and a growing wave of optimism and opportunity surrounding two upstart opposition parties – The WildRose Alliance and The Alberta Party. Who are both generating an incredible sense of buzz in their own right.

So yes, while Social Media will probably be deemed ineffective in 2011, one only needs to look to Alberta in 2012 to see its future… Or better yet wait till Election 42 if the Conservatives receive another minority and a clean slate of political leaders are brought to the table.

Categories: The-Canada-Vibe, The-Soapbox, The Political World

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