Social media no easy fix for vote-hungry candidates

Social networking sites are playing a key role in the election campaign, but as CBC's Steven D'Souza discovered, they have not completely replaced traditional campaigning in Toronto.

Key is to engage voters in ideas, conversation, say experts

Much has been made of the role social media is playing in this federal election campaign, where candidates are using the latest technology to connect with voters, but as the CBC’s Steven D’Souza discovered, Tweets and Facebook updates have not replaced door-knocking and phone calling as candidates look to win votes in the Toronto area.

Newmarket, Ont., voter Pam Allard, 62, admits she can’t get enough of election-related Twitter updates. In fact, she joined Twitter prior to the election just so she could keep track of the campaign.

A stream of Twitter messages about the 2011 federal election. While social networking is important, it doesn't replace traditional campaign methods. (CBC)

Between Twitter and Facebook, Allard spends about four hours a day tracking candidates online.

"I feel that I’m qualified to cast my vote, because I have got all the information I need," she said. "It’s fun, it’s fascinating, but it’s addictive and it’s time-consuming."

Candidates are trying use social media to grab the attention of Allard and voters like her.

NDP candidate Olivia Chow is running for re-election in the downtown Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina. The NDP campaign has an iPhone app and two full-time volunteers who are constantly monitoring what’s being said about the campaign and the candidates on social media sites.

But monitoring is only part of a successful online election campaign.

"A lot of people say they tweet but it’s kind of like leaving a voice mail," said Chow’s campaign manager, Joe Cressy. "They leave the message and they hope someone hears it. What Oliva does is she engages in a conversation online."

While being on social media may provide access to more people than ever before, that audience may not be as large as some candidates would like.

recent Ipsos Reid survey found that only six per cent of voters get their online political fix daily. On a weekly basis, only 21 per cent of voters use social media to follow politics.

Patrick Gladney is a research director at the Social Media Group, a company that helps businesses expand their social media reach. He studied social media during the 2010 Toronto mayoralty race and although online chatter ranked heavily against Rob Ford, he wound up winning by a wide margin.

"Social media is not the be-all and end-all or an ultimate prognosticator of who's going to win," said Gladney.

"You had several candidates in that race who were quite adept at using social media and had large followings online, but their results online didn't translate to the polls because social media represents a very specific constituency of people. There was really large segments of the population who you probably wouldn't find on Twitter, yet who voted for Rob Ford."

A volunteer tracks the chatter on social networking sites in the Toronto campaign office of NDP candidate Olivia Chow. (CBC)

He said candidates who use social media effectively will engage with voters instead of simply broadcasting messages at them.

"There is a risk that social media can become an echo chamber where parties are basically talking to each other and their own bases and not necessarily reaching out and finding new voters," he added.

Using social media can also be hit and miss.

Last weekend, an event where Chow gave out free ice cream received more Twitter mentions than one in which she criticized senators for campaigning.

"You don’t do social media at the expense of canvassing," Cressy said. "You don’t do social media at the expense of phone banking."

Allard said she hopes social media, despite its limitations, will help young people get politically active.

"Apathy isn’t an option," she said. "It just isn’t."