Is being well "liked" on Facebook a harbinger of electoral success? A Canadian PR firm and a Canadian digital firm have joined forces to find out.
"The social election experiment," a joint venture between Vancouver's Dare and Optimum firms, is "essentially a digital take on a straw poll," says Angele Beausoleil, Dare's vice-president of strategy and innovation.
'We hope to have a small role to play in making this the most social election in Canada today.' —Angele Beausoleil, Dare's vice-president of strategy and innovation
"How can we look at a public opinion poll through the lens of social media and potentially predict the outcome of an election?"
The firms are tracking how many people "like" candidates in all 308 federal ridings throughout the campaign.
The project was inspired by a similar experiment during the most recent U.S. midterm elections — but with a few twists.
"They had done that [U.S.] analysis after the election was actually over," says Optimum's David Brodie. "They didn't look at the whole country, just a few hot races."
Launching the experiment during the election campaign has allowed the firms to track trends "in real time."
For instance, NDP Leader Jack Layton's Facebook page gained 5,000 new "likes" in the days following the leaders' debates.
And while Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has been the most popular leader on Facebook throughout the race, "we have seen that gap narrow," Brodie says.
'A like on Facebook demonstrates an affinity'
Leaders on Facebook
Stephen Harper: 50,959 'likes'
Michael Ignatieff: 60,646 'likes'
Jack Layton: 47,172 'likes'
Elizabeth May: 10,157 'likes
Gilles Duceppe: 7,700 'likes'
All numbers accurate as of 2:48 p.m. ET Wednesday.
The site provides graphs breaking down how popular the parties are across the country and in each province and territory.
Readers can also select specific ridings to see how many "likes" candidates have had each day since April 5.
The big question is whether the most-"liked" candidates will deliver at the ballot box.
"Will the likes equal votes in the end?" Beausoleil asks. "[Facebook] really does attribute a level of popularity to a potential vote, and this is really what we're looking at."
That's why the firms opted to look at candidates' popularity on Facebook rather than Twitter.
"It's a much more mass medium," Brodie says. "Somebody might follow a person [on Twitter] just because they're interested in what they have to say.
"A 'like' on Facebook demonstrates an affinity for that candidate."
But it might come from someone outside the riding or country, and may not translate into a vote.
Some of the ridings identified as battlegrounds, such as southern Ontario's Mississauga-Erindale, appear to be headed for lopsided finishes, if the official results reflect the Facebook rankings.
Which, the researchers say, they may well not.
The data is "certainly skewing the report somewhat in favour of the Liberals at this stage," Brodie says. "I think part of it has to do solely with organization, that they have focused some of their resources there."
And, he says, some candidates have only developed Facebook profiles over the past few weeks while others have been ready for an election for several years.
In addition to releasing a report comparing the Facebook "results" to the official ones, the firms are hoping the experiment encourages candidates from all parties to develop a digital profile.
"We hope to have a small role to play in making this the most social election in Canada today," Beausoleil says. "If we can have a small part in that, we'd feel very satisfied."