While it may be difficult to pick an overall winner of Thursday night's first federal election debate, in the Twitterverse at least, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was a clear victor.

That is, if you define victory in terms of leader mentions. 

The same could be said over on Google, where again Trudeau won the night based on search interest.

However, on Facebook, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who had dominated the conversation before the debate, continued to dominate the conversation during it.

What this means for a leader's popularity is difficult to determined, as a mere mention alone could be either positive or negative.

"We don't look at it in terms of wins or losses. What we want to show is that there are very serious conversations on Facebook, political conversations," said  Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada.

It also shows that social media is playing an increasingly active and important role in the popular discussion around this year's election.

For example, Canadian political chatter on Twitter over the last four years has increased 423 per cent, said Mark Blevis, an Ottawa-based digital analyst who is helping track trends on Twitter this election campaign. 

More than 220,000 tweets were sent out about the debate, according to Twitter Canada. And between the actual debate hours of 8 p.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET, 93,000 tweets were issued, Blevis said. Meanwhile, 55,000 Twitter accounts were involved in debate-related chatter.

Who is Thomas Mulcair?

During the debate, Trudeau was the most mentioned leader by Twitter handle (11,847), with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May following closely (10, 956). Harper, by contrast, earned 8,776 mentions with NDP Leader Tom Mulcair last with 6,381 mentions.

But May did win what might be considered one of the more important social media victories — she picked up 3,300 new Twitter followers over a 36-hour period, more than any other candidate. 

Blevis said the political parties make use of Twitter to get out information about different issues. The Liberals, he said, were particularly effective at using to Twitter to tweet out fact-checking of statements made by the other leaders.

Over on Google, Harper had been generating the most search interests, before being toppled by Trudeau during the debate.

"It's worth pointing out this is not a poll, this is search interest," said Aaron Brindle, a spokesman for Google and a Google trends expert.

"People go online to go seek all kinds of clarification, context, to fact-check, there's a number of different scenarios in which someone could be searching for Justin Trudeau," Brindle notes.

"That said, he won the night almost from the get-go from 8 p.m. all the way to 10 p.m. Searches for Justin Trudeau outpaced Stephen Harper on average by around 64 per cent, and outpaced Thomas Mulcair by a slightly larger margin, but not much."

Although Mulcair finished third, one of the top trending questions on debate night was: Who is Thomas Mulcair?

"That is interesting because we don't have the same kind of questions for Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau," Brindle said. "And both of those leaders outpace searches for their respective parties by quite a large margin, where it's the opposite scenario for Mulcair where searches for NDP outpaces searches for Thomas Mulcair."

As for top trending Google questions, those included:

  • Did Canada have a surplus before Harper?
  • Is Canada in a recession?
  • Who does Justin Trudeau consider to be middle class?
  • Does Thomas Mulcair want Quebec to separate
  • What is the main role of the Senate?

On Facebook, while Harper was the main topic, Trudeau maintained his number two spot during the debate, said Chan at Facebook Canada. However Mulcair, who was in third going into the debate, dropped to the fourth position, as May claimed the third spot.

Chan said the most conversational moment came at 8:37 p.m of the debate when May made the point that greenhouse gas emissions were going down during the recession (arguing that Harper's government shouldn't take credit for the decrease).

Was that spurt of conversation because of what she said about GHG emission? Chan asks. "Or was it just that her style seems to have provoked commentary among Canadians on Facebook?"

The most discussed issue leading up to the debate was, not surprisingly, the economy, followed by governance and foreign policy. But energy and the environment, which came in at number six pre-debate, shot up to number two during it.

With files from Carolyn Dunn