The House: The Twitter election

This federal election is the first since Twitter went mainstream. And with so many politicians using it, what happens on Twitter affects voters, even if they aren't users.

Why what happens on Twitter matters to everyone

NDP volunteers work on computers in the NDP election headquarters during a media tour in Ottawa, Jan. 24, 2011. This is the first federal election where Twitter will play a big role in communication. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This federal election campaign is the first one to take flight under the watchful eye of Twitter.

The social media site has been around since 2006, but when the federal parties last went head to head in 2008, most reporters and politicians hadn't yet signed on.

About 4.5 million Canadians have Twitter accounts, although that doesn't mean they're all using them or paying attention to politics. A lot of opinion leaders, politicians and reporters are, though. And that affects what everyone reads and sees in the news.

Social media team

The NDP are using a full-time social media team for the first time ever. In 2008, social media were combined with TV monitoring. This time around, they'll be online constantly, interacting with the media and pushing stories.

They showed off their campaign headquarters in January — to prove they were prepared for an election at any time — and the social media team was a stop on the tour.

NDP Director of Communications Drew Anderson says Twitter is a good way to reach out and engage with voters, but also to see what people are talking about.

"Quite honestly, more important is tracking what people are thinking, what the big issues are of the day, what folks are sharing with their friends and what not. This is the stuff that politics is about and we see it as a big part of our campaign to be in those conversations."

Anderson says the parties are forced to be nimble and to run their campaigns differently to keep up with social media.

Best focus group

Digital public affairs strategist Mark Blevis says Twitter is the best focus group available to politicians: it's instant, it's free and it's easy to track reaction to a policy announcement. And it's usually pretty clear what party the person tweeting supports.

Blevis says up until recently, it would take 24 to 36 hours to get reaction from people. Politicians would have an event, then leave time for the media to file their stories, and then for people to absorb the news, form an opinion and answer a survey about what they thought.

"Parties can now follow that information, inform party policy, inform candidate policy and inform election strategy. So there's kind of this symbiotic relationship now where information is put out on social media to reach the public, and the public is revealing its opinion back to the politicians," he said.

The source

Candidates also like Twitter because it can be the best place to get breaking news. Liberal Carolyn Bennett says she sometimes knows about big developments before her staff do. Conservative Tony Clement says Twitter is the best news aggregator he's found, and he gets 80 to 90 per cent of his news from links he sees on the site.

Bennett says she's even gotten breaking news direct from the source — news the national media didn't have yet.

"I remember when I was the health critic, finding out on H1N1 that a certain hospital in Alberta had had to close the pediatric ward. That wasn't in the regular mainstream media, but it became something that I could follow up and find out what had been happening. It is crowdsourcing of information," she said.

Clement is arguably the most proficient politician on Twitter. He was the industry minister when the last parliamentary session ended, but he doesn't just tweet about politics and policy. He also has fun with it, tweeting throughout the Junos or recalling the time Shania Twain almost ran over his friend's dog.

"It gives me what I call dimensionality, that I'm not just a cardboard cut-out politician who only tweets about politics or only tweets to drag down the other guy or to tout myself. I do have other interests, other passions in my life other than politics, including alternative music, so I'll tweet up a storm about that when I find the opportunity to do so," Clement said.

Both Bennett and Clement also say Twitter makes it easier to get their side of the story out. Before, Clement says he had to go through his press secretary, who would call the journalist or write a letter to the editor.

"Now, if I feel something is way out of whack in terms of how I want to express myself or my side of the story or an additional point that has not been made about the story, then I can just tweet it. So that's just a lot more direct," Clement said.

"As a political actor I'm well aware that I have to be exact about how I express myself, and there's no room for error on Twitter ... but it certainly is a very direct way to make sure that your message, whatever your message is, is as accurate as you want to be."

First for everything

But Twitter also comes with certain risks.

Clement got into some trouble earlier this year when he tweeted to confirm a decision he'd made to send a CRTC decision back for more discussion. The decision was on usage-based billing, which would have let Bell and Rogers force small internet service providers to change their unlimited data plans.

People, including reporters, were asking Clement on Twitter whether he'd reverse the CRTC decision. So he tweeted his answer.

Blevis says there's a first for everything, and the tweeted policy decision didn't bother him at all.

"I think a lot of people were upset because it was the first time it happened. I'm sure there were people who were upset the first time a politician had a phone in their office or stopped using the train. Any time there's a first, there's a risk associated with it," he said.

But not having to go through a press secretary can lead to other problems.

Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald tweeted about two reporters after a press conference with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper this week. MacDonald called the reporters "attack dogs" and "pathetic." It quickly drew condemnation that had him apologizing — not to the reporters he'd named in the tweet, but to another reporter who stuck up for them.

Blevis has advice for politicians thinking of tweeting in the heat of the moment.

"If you're angry, write the message. Don't write it in your email. Write it in word or pages or whatever tool you use. Park it. Come back to it the next day," he says.