It can no longer be said that we're in a pre-election period, exactly. We're now somewhere between "pre-" and the actual campaign, with both parties rolling out announcements and attacks. And social media sites, particularly Twitter, seem to be developing as a key platform for the attacks.
Here at Spin Reduxit, we are true believers in Twitter as a medium. But despite the inevitable Twitter-in-the-campaign story (from a media organization that's shown no interest itself in using social media), it's important not to overstate its role, as journalists elsewhere have realized.
Twitter users in New Brunswick still form only a tiny fraction of the electorate and they tend to be either partisans, insiders, or what we call the "hyper-engaged" - people with a heightened interest in politics, who go beyond passive consumption of political coverage and seek out extra information, insight and analysis.
(This is a bit of dilemma for political journalists, who ought to strive to reach a broad, general audience. Platforms like Twitter and this blog allow us to cater to the hyper-engaged, while we aim coverage on radio, TV and the CBC New Brunswick website for a more general audience. When I was leaked the secret agenda for this weekend's PC energy consultations, I didn't think the who's-who list was a news story, per se. But I thought my Twitter followers would want to see images of the agenda document.)
The point is, Twitter's small, hyper-engaged audience leads me to doubt that effective use of the service is going to swing a lot of votes and make for a different election result. But I think it can be a testing ground for ideas and messages on people who have a lot of social capital - thus creating a ripple effect that could influence public opinion. (The more populist and populous Facebook is a different beast altogether - but look at how the People's Alliance of New Brunswick built their membership base using the site.)
Twitter's potential to shape and influence the discourse is why I find the PC Party's approach to it so curious. The Tories have publicly complained about the constant Liberal attacks, some of them on Twitter, but they've been fairly passive about using the platform themselves. When I scan my Twitter list of NB political players these days, the vast majority of tweets I see are from Liberals.
When I tweeted on this today, a Tory replied that the party's number one objective with Twitter "is to listen to what voters have [to] say about issues and clarify our position when needed." That strikes me as a reactive, defensive strategy, one that lets the other side set the agenda.
This is not to suggest that the only other way to use social media is to go on constant attack, as the Liberals have been doing. (Cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock, for example, tweeted a link he labelled "Nobel winner on why PC cut plan will hurt economy" - implying that the Nobel winner is actually commenting on the PC plan, which he clearly wasn't.)
There must be a happy medium somewhere. But if the next three months consists of aggressive, often speculative Liberal attacks and the Tories listening, then clarifying their position "when needed," then social media such as Twitter won't live up to their potential.