Twitter chatter spills into real-life Alberta election as political scientist watches it all

A research team from the University of Alberta is tracking Twitter to see which issues are getting the most traction — and sparking the most heated debates — during the provincial election campaign.

Social media platform is key for tracking how well policies are engaging voters, Jared Wesley says

Twitter is a good gauge of how parties must change their focus during the campaign, political scientist Jared Wesley says. He's studied Alberta tweets during the campaign season. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

A research team from the University of Alberta is tracking Twitter to see which issues are getting the most traction — and sparking the most heated debates — during the provincial election campaign.

And so far, it's clear that this election's Twitter chatter is spilling into the real world — with protests that force political parties to respond.

The project, called Poli Volume, analyzes messages posted to the social media site to measure how political parties set their agendas based on the issues being discussed by the public. In other words, Twitter acts as a divining rod for what policies might gain traction among the general public.

"We do know that Twitter has the the potential to spark real life, in other words, on-the-street action by people," said Jared Wesley, a political scientist with the University of Alberta.

The strategy, the study leader says, helps determine if the parties are being successful at framing the ballot question in the way they want, rather than which one is likely to win popular support.

Twitter debate pushes parties, research says

Wesley's team, aided by Edmonton-based Darkhorse Analytics, has found that in terms of policy, left-leaning parties tend to be trusted more on social issues, and right-leaning parties tend to fare the same on economic and budget issues. That has translated in Alberta in the first two weeks, he said.

The first week showed the United Conservative Party (UCP) discussing the budget and the economy, while the NDP stressed social policy and the environment. 

Then Week 2 hit.

"The GSA issue dwarfed all others," said Wesley.

Twitter debate took off after the UCP education announcement. It resulted in protests in both Edmonton and Calgary, forcing political parties to make statements on the topic that they never intended to be a focus. (James Young/CBC)

The UCP announced its education platform — and conversation erupted on Twitter.

It highlighted the party's position on school's gay-straight alliances, noting it would, indeed, if elected, move forward with a plan to allow schools to tell parents if a child joins a GSA.

Pushback on Twitter was so strong, it sparked protests in both Edmonton and Calgary, which garnered media coverage and thus further comment by political parties.

"Twitter is certainly not the only domain for this agenda-setting battle but it is a leading one," he said.

It also showed the danger, Wesley said, that parties face when discussing issues outside of their strengths. That can benefit other parties that do well, in public opinion, on that topic.

Listen to Jared Wesley's full interview on The Homestretch:

UCP Leader Jason Kenney ended up defending his party's position on GSAs, which wasn't the issue he wanted front-and-centre of his campaign, Wesley said.

Kenney has hinted, Wesley said, that he's felt pulled off his own message, about the economy, to respond to this less popular part of his platform. The leader keeps repeating that it's time to focus on jobs and the economy, he noted. 

"That's really the game that parties are playing when it comes to these issues: pivot back to the issues that they think voters trust the most," he said.

At the time, the NDP and Leader Rachel Notley hadn't even been talking about the GSAs.

More voters paying attention soon

The population that uses Twitter in Canada, Wesley noted, is rather engaged in following the news, and is typically split evenly between right, left and centrists.

Heading toward election day on April 16, there's a lesson in this for parties, he said. Get unpopular ideas out of the way early to have time to recover from the pushback on Twitter and potentially in real life.

Wesley's past research has shown that most of the public tunes in around debate time (this election's leaders debate is on Thursday) and closer to election day.

With files from The Homestretch


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