With just one week until Ontario’s election day, the online hunt for votes is picking up steam.

The province’s first real social media election — where using social media sites such a Twitter and Facebook to attract and communicate with voters is a part of almost every politician’s campaign — follows municipal and federal elections that featured an explosion of online activity.

"It’s no longer a nice thing to do for politics, it’s a must-have," said Chris Hogg, CEO of digitaljournal.com, a leading online media network.

li-chris-social-media-interview-300

Chris Hogg, left, said politicians must engage with social media if they want to win. ((John Rieti/CBC))

"The door-to-door is what people used to do, now they’re turning to social media because you can reach a massive audience of highly engaged people who are influencers, and politicians need that."

But with the growth of online political discourse comes the traditional spin. A search through the #voteon hashtag on Twitter, one of the most popular spaces for news and information, shows a conversation dominated by partisan boosterism and political sniping.

A healthy online campaign

Still, some online nonpartisan campaigns have won the attention of voters and politicians.

HealthyCandidates.ca, an initiative launched by Ontario’s Heart and Stroke Foundation, gets citizens to challenge their would-be MPP to "Vote Healthy," which is a pledge to increase funding for health promotion in the future.

To date, 302 political candidates and three of the four major party leaders have signed on. In return, the politicians win online praise and attention.

"This has really evolved from the natural role that social media has started to play in recent election campaigns," said Marco Di Buono, the foundation’s director of philanthropy.

li-heart-marco-300

The Heart and Stroke Foundation's Marco Di Buono said the Healthy Candidates campaign is creating a living record of politicians who support health promotion. ((John Rieti))

"Because we see people interested in dialoging with their candidates in the run-up to the election, we can actually then interrupt that discussion a little bit and insert something that’s really important for us … and you can see that it’s generated incredible interest."

Di Buono calls the politicians’ pledges a "living record" of their commitment to health promotion. For Hogg, it’s the campaign’s strongest point — the ability to hold politicians accountable once the election is over.

"They’re joining a movement and that’s very different then just making a campaign promise, and it’s something that can come back to bite them later if they don’t stay accountable," Hogg said.

Where are the youth?

While the online discussion about Ontario’s election has been lively — particularly during the Sept. 27 leaders’ debate — social media watchers have noticed a decline in chatter from certain groups, specifically the student vote.

During the federal election, messages tagged with #studentvote were common, but according to Ottawa-based social media expert Mark Blevis, that conversation is nearly nonexistent during the current provincial campaign.

[CUSTOM

Politics aren't dead on campus, though. Some University of Toronto students have simply gone back to the basics, launching a campaign of T-shirts bearing the phrase: I only date boys (or girls) who vote.

"We feel like the traditional means of drawing youth in are not doing what they're supposed to," said student Ashley Lefler. 

"This T-shirt catches attention and kids can relate, young people can relate, older people can relate."

Former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, now a professor at UofT, recently tweeted a photo of himself with the group and the campaign has been generating plenty of buzz. But the big question is whether it will be enough to get students to vote on Oct. 6.

Election night coverage

Come election night, social media will again be in the spotlight as many people express their votes and their hopes, essentially turning websites into online exit polls.

The CBC will be following the discussion and encourage you to contact us with pictures, video and stories from wherever you as Ontario heads to the polls.