Social media and N.B. politics

December 30, 2010 9:36 PM

The rise and influence of social media, including the micro-blogging tool Twitter, and how society uses them to engage with their leaders, has been debated often in recent years. New Brunswick saw the influence of social media explode during the the NB Power sale debate and the 2010 election campaign.

There is a legitimate discussion that can be had over whether social media was used effectively. Or, people can discuss the future of social media as an information conduit between people and politicians or policy makers.

What has become clear in the last 12 months is t hat social media are already having an impact on how people gather, use and understand news. Even in the New Brunswick media climate, which is not a beacon of open competition, the nimbleness of online media has made the news coverage strategies of traditional media obsolete, particularly newspapers that have relied on a more relaxed daily news cycle.

Journalists were forced to come to grips with the speed that news now spreads through social media formats. Users now expect journalists and politicians to use social media to break news, add context (as much as is possible in 140 characters), react to developing stories, and respond to questions.

There is a fallacy that has been allowed to permeate around New Brunswick politics and journalistic circles that social media has had little impact or that it is a fad. There has also been much criticism, even from Spin Reduxit, on how social media, particularly Twitter, was used in the 2010 election campaign.

There were many anonymous accounts taking pot shots at opponents, party accounts that issued attack lines and press releases without any form of engagement, and politicians who set up accounts and never used them. There were times during the campaign where the discussion on Twitter's #nbvotes group turned disturbingly hostile.

But there's a bigger picture revealed in some statistics courtesy of Cory Hartlen of Fredericton's Radian 6.

During a three-month window starting in late August, just prior to the election campaign's official start, #nbvotes was mentioned 25,102 times. It should come as no surprise that 99.6 per cent of those mentions originated on Twitter with the remainder being flagged on public Facebook profiles, forums, comment boards or blogs.

Those mentions came from 1,188 people, which may seem like a relatively small amount. However, if you count all of the followers of each of the Twitter users who mentioned #nbvotes, there was a potential audience of 8,352,062 people. One tweet on #nbvotes had an average reach of 311 people.

And these statistics can only track the people who actually had Twitter accounts. It does not count the people who looked at Twitter to watch the debate but never actually participated themselves. It also does not count people who received by phone, email or conversation information that originated on Twitter. That information is put into the hands of people, who go out into the community and relay their knowledge in coffee shops, church suppers and parent-teacher association meetings.

Social media's future

It would be easy to minimize social media's impact on the New Brunswick election campaign. Social media's critics are correct to illustrate the many shortcomings. And the barrage of hyperbolic and ad hominem partisan attacks and animal-inspired fake accounts serve as easy targets.

A case could also be made that social media and the New Brunswick electorate experienced the requisite growing pains that occur during any transitional period. The Twitter traffic cited earlier demonstrates the potential upside in terms of sheer numbers and mobilizing force. So perhaps it would be helpful to reflect on why social media was not as effective as it could have been, and on some of the root causes for the perceived failure.

Twitter, as an organizational tool, is not new, but the bungled NB Power deal and the fall election emerged as two early tests of how the micro-blogging tool could be used in a small, rather conservative, province like New Brunswick. A recent Statistics Canada survey showed that New Brunswick had one of the lowest rates of Internet usage, so as a society we are relatively new to these methods.

Some Twitter users used the service as a conversational tool to discuss politics, but often those discussions devolved into mean-spirited attacks. While frustrating, particularly to the subject of the barbs, this is relatively routine for online forums. Over the course of the campaign, there was a concerted attempt to use Twitter to share breaking news or crowdsource for material. These uses are often overlooked by the critics, who would rather point to the screaming headlines created by partisan activists.

The role of political parties and partisans is also instructive in analyzing social media's impact on the campaign. Governments and political parties have had a rather cool reaction to the rise of social media, and to Twitter in particular. The reason seems fairly obvious. Social media, by its nature, destabilizes the power structure of what have been historically top-down organizations.

A political party elects a leader, who decides on campaign strategy, policy ideas, etc. Government bureaucracies have clearly defined organizational charts. The possibility of a lowly riding treasurer or an acting deputy policy advisor releasing key information would send a cold chill down the spine of those at the top of the power structure. It has never worked like that in the past. (Look at Wikileaks, for example.)

Yet, the number of people on Twitter means social media platforms cannot be ignored. Worldwide there are roughly 180 million Twitter users, who have sent an estimated 29 billion tweets. Those numbers suggest a change is coming and governments may want to react now.

Political parties and a select few New Brunswick government departments have tried to dip their collective toes into social media's waters, but they have sought to impose their traditional top-down communications strategies on this new platform. They send out news releases or talking points but never engage in debates with citizens. (Several times, I posed questions to former premier Shawn Graham's Twitter account, only to receive a call from the Premier's Office offering clarification.)

This strategy can either be generously described as the beginning of a long and steep learning curve for bureaucrats and political parties, or, more cynically, as a planned subterfuge during the election campaign and earlier public debates.

By planned subterfuge, I mean that political parties may have sought to sideline social media by turning it into a toxic environment, where only hardcore partisans would choose to go. These are the people that would be involved regardless of the forum. This would suit them fine and minimize the opportunity of a full public debate in an uncontrollable forum. This would also stop members of the public, who despise politics but are interested in policy, from paying attention. But it would not sway many voters, either.

While politicians and bureaucrats seem to be afraid of the bottom-up possibility of social media right now, perhaps they should be warmly embracing it. Robert Putnam outlines in his 2000 book "Bowling Alone" how Americans are no longer joining institutions and organizations to the same degree as they did in the post-Second World War era. Donald Savoie also points out a similar Canadian trend in his book "Power: Where is it?" Savoie says fewer Canadians are joining political parties and one can only assume the same is true in New Brunswick. Fewer people involved in politics, he says, allows a small cadre of political insiders, pollsters and senior bureaucrats to wield power.

Effectively used, social media has the power to organize political debate and host a real grassroots discussion on any subject of concern to people. Twitter can help people who support, or oppose, ideas to mobilize protests and share information. It also offers the government an informal peek into what the public thinks of a policy option. In an authoritarian state, the latter fact is a very real concern. In an open democracy, this should be welcomed as a part of the governing process.

Facebook's rise has made that platform nearly ubiquitous and Twitter may one day very soon reach that same level of usage. (Or, just as likely, a new social media platform may replace both of them.) These services could open the door to a large group of people who are now on the outside of the political process to get involved in a way that they feel comfortable with.

Almost two centuries ago Canadian politicians decided the country would be governed by a form of responsible government, as opposed to the elite rule that had been instituted in the country's early days. Over time, society extended the franchise to more groups. The decline in voter turnout levels and the involvement in political parties shows there are flaws in our democratic process and it may suggest the need to reframe our views on governance. (Here is where the cyber-utopian in me starts to emerge.) Perhaps responsible government should be broadened to include responsive government.

Social media can reach citizens who never show up to a public meeting. It can engage the working parents who cannot spare the time to become politically involved. A degree of anonymity offered by Internet handles can give a voice to people who otherwise would be too scared to speak out for fear of hurting their careers or becoming pariahs in a small province.

There are many ways to achieve this goal. Political parties and the government could start by dumping reams of data and information, all which were created with public funds, online so the public can examine it (though genuinely private, personal information would be protected). They could allow people to debate ideas on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. And they could set up wiki pages to help shape policy. Legislative committees could be opened up so questions are answered via Twitter and citizens could submit amendments for consideration.

The process of opening up democracy to more transparency would likely strip power from the few who hold it now and transfer it to the many who have little power now. This would allow engaged citizens to be involved without having to join political parties that they find distasteful. It would allow people who are not engaged, but have very real concerns or legitimate points, to raise them instead of simply complaining about being left out of the process.

Public engagement is one of the main buzzwords that politicians and policy makers adopted in 2010. We saw the beginnings of real engagement through social media, but it was citizens, not governments, leading the way. The more governments and political parties talk about public engagement but spurn social media, the more hollow their rhetoric will ring.

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