Alberta election campaign heats up online… but is it all for naught?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

According to political scientist David Taras, quoted in a recent Canadian Press story, apparently so: “The basic rule so far is that things that go on in cyberspace don’t have an impact unless they’re picked up and legitimized by the mainstream media.”

And while I make no claim of academic rigour in my argument against Mr. Taras’ assertion, I tend to disagree.

Amid all the hype around the 2.0-ification of politics, and in particular the impressive application of these tools south of the border, I would suggest the web is still having an increasingly powerful impact on how politics is conducted and in the way voters inform their decisions – particularly those still sitting on the fence.

Without question, the mainstream media is still a highly relevant channel by which to engage voters of all stripes on the issues (as well as the non-issues). And it’s certainly easy to be dissuaded by the various attempts of various political parties and activists to exploit social media – we’ve all seen the “blogs” that offer no RSS nor any ability to engage with the authors. We’ve seen the Youtube channels that are simply a re-hash of TV ads with view numbers that only reinforce the perception of irrelevance. And we’re seeing the myriad yet seemingly necessary Facebook groups – be they official party pages, activists both “officialandun-official“ - emerging with little by which to measure their effectiveness or visibility within the broader campaign universe.

Likewise, the considerable noise among political bloggers of all stripes might speak more to the echochamber effect than real debate or dialog on the issues.

But, to me, that misses the point. First, a considerable part of any campaign is to mobilize existing supporters and provide them with the tools to support their activism on your behalf. Set aside the need to convert fence-sitters (which is still important), the real goal of a campaign is for my party to bring out more supporters than yours. And if I have the tools at my disposal to actively engage supporters, mobilize them, arm them with content to convert the fence-sitters on the party’s behalf, and make them feel like they’re part of a team – then I’m a long way toward achieving my goal (and doing so in a way that is extremely cost-effective, time efficient and visible to all supporters – and non-supporters – alike).

Sure, the social media stuff is sexy as hell… but from this observer’s perspective, only if it’s used well to mobilize supporters – getting them out to events, driving them to the polls, donating and putting forth arguments on your behalf in whatever forum is required – traditional media or otherwise. I would suggest, however, that we might see more of sites like this and this, examples of how political parties and candidates might use a blog to quickly and visibly counter misinformation, rumour, inaccuracies and other points of contention.

With respect to fence-sitters – and I’ve tended to be a fence-sitter for many different elections – my guess is that it would take a lot more than a Facebook group or a video to sway me. That said, and if used appropriately (and perhaps Dalton McGuinty nearly did it best in the last provincial election in Ontario), I would agree with Laura Shutiak, an Alberta Liberal candidate, who said in the CP article: “I think it gives people a sense of who I am. If it translates into a vote, great,” she said. “There are so many undecided voters right now that they’re looking for a sense of who a person is, and they’re looking to go a step further to find out more.”

As a means to create a more human connection between a candidate and a potential voter, the potential certainly exists, and I’m surprised it’s not more fully exploited across all forms of media.

Is it a first point of information as blogger Dave Cournoyer points out in the article? “The Internet is playing more of a central role in these campaigns because it’s where a lot more Albertans are looking for a first source of information,” said Cournoyer, who will also make his TV debut this campaign as a political analyst. “I don’t think it’s a distrust of the mainstream media. People are just accessing information in different ways.”

I would agree wholeheartedly, given the number of campaign guides and tools (including our very own Alberta 2008 election predictor) that exist to help point voters to informed education and debate. As the Internet expands what’s available to us – and as we seek out those who share similar ideas and viewpoints – it will certainly reinforce our existing political affiliations. But will it change them? I’m not so sure. And as Dave notes, we still for the most part put a degree of trust in the mainstream media to provide accurate, if not unbiased, analysis of the platforms and issues.

So what’s my point in all this?… like everything about social media, I think we need to ensure that we don’t get caught on the dark side of the hype, and understand the “real” value of what the web offers. And I think that’s something we’re still all looking for.

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