Politics

NDP looking to social media for a campaign boost

The NDP, which went into this federal election campaign short of money and with sagging poll numbers, needs social media clout. It got some on Saturday.

Cash-strapped party has to get creative to reach voters

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh listens as poet Rupi Kaur wraps up a question-and-answer session at a campaign event in Burnaby, B.C. on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The NDP, which went into this federal election campaign short of money and with sagging poll numbers, needs social media clout. It got some on Saturday.

In front of a few hundred people in a Burnaby, B.C., hotel, Canadian poet and Instagram sensation Rupi Kaur shared her "Jagmeet story" about being a shy teen in Brampton, Ont.,  who felt alone and invisible. The one person who didn't write her off as a "nobody" back then, was beside her on stage — NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

"He made me feel seen," she said. "It gives me the deepest honour to sit here before you today and endorse my brother Jagmeet Singh as Canada's next prime minister."

These kinds of endorsement happen during campaigns, but this one is especially welcome for the NDP. 

Kaur's a New York Times bestselling author and illustrator who has 3.7 million Instagram followers. 

That's the kind of social media reach the party needs.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Nader Mohamed, the party's social media director, talk about their use of social media in the campaign. 0:57

The NDP entered the campaign with a new leader. It was in a deep financial hole and facing a diminished standing in the House of Commons. The party had to borrow against its Ottawa headquarters building and cut back on the number of days it chartered a plane in order to run a full campaign on a budget. With all those challenges, New Democrats have to get creative.

'We know we have limited resources'

Nader Mohamed, Singh's social media director, told CBC News the party is spending money on a very targeted, digital ad campaign this election. But he knows the New Democrats are not going to be able to compete with the other major parties' digital budgets. 

Since June, the NDP spent roughly $130,500 on Facebook advertising on Singh and the NDP's pages combined. In comparison, the Liberals spent five times more, about $692,600 and the Conservatives roughly $438,500, according to the platform's ad library.

"We know we have limited resources and have to spend them wisely," said Mohamed. "We are going to narrow and focus in on the organic content."

Organic content means free content. And when a political party isn't paying to reach people, it has to find other ways to start trending.

Mohamed arms himself with a video camera and a professional photographer. The pair circle Singh while he interacts with crowds at multiple events a day on the campaign trail. Their mission: to capture raw moments that go viral.

Has to be edgy

"It has to be different," said Mohamed. "It has to be edgy. Otherwise people aren't going to press the share button."

The NDP's followers on Twitter grew by 10,000 and its Facebook impressions are up more than 100 per cent in the past month compared to the last, according to the NDP. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Mohamed's most shared post to date happened in the wake of Singh's handling of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's blackface and brownface controversy. The leader's emotional message to people bullied over the colour of their skin resonated with a young supporter who later held up a sign at a rally in Windsor that read "I have value. I have worth. I am loved. Thank you Singh" and later tearfully thanked Singh for "validating my experience." 

More than a million people saw the video on Twitter and more than 200,000 on Facebook, said Mohamed. The post also gave the NDP an opportunity to amplify the positive press Singh earned by keeping the story alive longer. 

The New Democrats also drew more than 2 million views and 70,000 engagements on a brief retort aimed at Trudeau for buying a pipeline. 

Viewer numbers rising

Since the campaign started, Singh's daily Instagram videos have grown in viewers, getting up to 20,000 views each. The party has gained 10,000 followers on Twitter and its engagement on Facebook is up 100 per cent this month compared with last, said Mohamed. 

"We are seeing higher engagement on a lot of our posts than Mr. Scheer's pages," he said. 

As crafty as it all is, the big question is will any of this translate into votes? 

Federal poll averages from the CBC's Éric Grenier show the NDP stuck in third place at 13.8 per cent, which is only a point higher than on July 30. 

Zain Velji, is a senior campaign strategist and vice-president of strategy at Northweather who managed Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi's campaign.

He said the NDP won't be able to make gains in the polls unless it has a series of major breakthrough moments that are shared widely among Canadians who don't follow Singh. 

There's a distribution problem

While he's impressed with the NDP's creative content, he said the party has a distribution problem.

Singh has 219,999 followers on Facebook, compared with Trudeau's 6.7 million and Scheer's 306,000. On Instagram, Singh is in second place with more than 265,000 followers, behind Trudeau's 3.1 million. Scheer only has 48,700 on that platform.

"The reality is, good, creative content doesn't get the job done," said Velji. "It is good distribution and moments that need to pierce through."

Mohamed said he thinks social media is making a Singh more likable and crowds are growing at townhalls.

The NDP plans to turn Kaur's story about Singh into a sharable moment. They would like to inspire others to record and post their "Jagmeet stories" online, too. It's something the party hopes will take off quickly, with only 21 days of the election left to go.

Debates have been a hallmark of Canadian elections since 1968, but what effect do they actually have on voters? Strategists will tell you they’re critical to elections and a lot of planning goes into them. Researchers, on the other hand, say there’s evidence they can change votes, though often they don't. 8:39

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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