Does social media help or hinder political debates?

Some observers say our increased use of social media in election campaigns isn't necessarily deepening our understanding of the candidates and the issues.

Twitter et al. can lead to 'a trivialization of the electoral process,' says one expert

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was left out of the Sept. 17 election debate in Calgary, so she decided to participate via Twitter. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

For better or worse, social media has become an active player in the modern election campaign.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — candidates have more channels than ever to get their messages out.

You the voter have an equivalent number of ways to follow their statements and decide whether they're the unvarnished truth or just plain bunk.

For a typical campaign event, such as Thursday's French-language debate in Montreal, there are people who watch it on TV, follow internet commentary on a second screen and maybe even use their smartphone to tweet about it.

While this scenario requires a heightened level of political engagement, some observers say our increased use of social media in election campaigns isn't necessarily deepening our understanding of the candidates and the issues.

"I do believe that ultimately what comes out of these debates that are remediated through social media is a trivialization of the electoral process," says Greg Elmer, a communications professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.

'Democratizing' conversations

The Globe and Mail-sponsored leaders' debate on Sept. 17 provides a telling example of how campaigning has evolved in the digital era.

While Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held forth on their visions for the economy, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May — who was excluded from the debate — resorted to Twitter.

Despite having more ways than ever to access information, many people still crowd-source their opinions on political leaders and their debate performances, says Ryerson University professor Greg Elmer.

By tweeting her rebuttals and policy statements, May effectively broadened the scope of the debate. She also garnered more Twitter mentions than any of the other leaders.

"What happened with Elizabeth May… is exactly why I love social media," says Susie Erjavec Parker, social media strategist for the Sparker Strategy Group in Winnipeg.

"Traditional media, especially as it pertains to government, love having gatekeepers. They love deciding who gets to have the microphone. And social media blows that argument out of the water. It democratizes conversations."

May's gambit worked to the extent that it did because many people now follow broadcast events with more than one screen.

For example, a recent study by the National Library of Medicine and the National Centre for Biotechnology Information in the U.S. found that 79 per cent of respondents used mobile devices while watching TV.

However, Ryerson's Greg Elmer says that while we now have the ability to follow a modern campaign to a greater level than ever before, there is a corollary to that degree of engagement: we can't possibly absorb it all.

Keeping track of what's being said during a debate while following the online play-by-play and commentary divides our attention, he says.

"On social media, you have such a fractured set of platforms and websites and devices with which one can interact and view content on. But you also have this problem of attention, because the information is so fleeting."

The access to all that information has a rather ironic outcome, says Elmer, which is that many people still tend to crowd-source their opinions on political issues — such as how a specific candidate performed in a debate.

Awash in hashtags

One of the social media memes that emerged after the Sept. 17 debate in Calgary was how ominous the backdrop looked. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Another potential downside is that social media can invite users to christen goofy hashtags about peripheral incidents during something like a leaders' debate, which can often overshadow the substance of the debate itself.

In the wake of the French-language debate, there was much buzz online about Elizabeth May flashing a peace sign after the leaders' opening handshake.

For the Globe and Mail debate, these side incidents included moderator David Walmsley's Irish accent, the slightly Gothic backdrop and the sound of the bell that signaled the end of each candidate's allotted speaking time.

The sideshow of social media memes doesn't necessarily affect the candidates, says Marcel Wieder, president of the Aurora Strategy Group.

"For the leaders, that sort of stuff is inconsequential – they can't get wrapped up in a bell or a backdrop. Their focus is strictly on how they communicated their message that evening," says Wieder, who has worked with politicians at the federal, provincial and municipal levels and is currently doing some consulting for the federal Liberal campaign.

But he says these side issues can frustrate their campaign teams. "Every time there's a discussion about the sound of the bell, for example, it crowds out their candidates' messaging."

Elmer believes that the more these events are reduced to "single words or catchphrases or shared GIFs," the less content there is for would-be voters to base a voting decision on.

Parker of the Sparker Strategy Group disagrees. She admits that social media can feel tangential at times, but says it can still inform voters.

"There are always going to be distractions in the process," she says.

But, she adds, if "that one distraction captures the attention of somebody who wasn't going to vote or who is undecided, and they then decide to use social media to delve further and investigate and do more research on their own, then I still think that we're winning.

"And I say 'we' as the Canadian public."