The 'Twitter campaign,' but who cares?

What demographics are politicians really reaching in the online sphere and will it translate into votes?
NDP Leader Jack Layton talks with a technician at a computer recycling operation during a campaign stop. This election you're more likely to see politicians using computers and BlackBerries to Tweet their message. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

The federal election propelled Pam Allard, 62, into the Twittersphere — and she says she's here to stay.

"At first, I used to think it was silly," the Newmarket, Ont., resident said, laughing. "I don't think that anymore."

But Allard is a politically engaged voter who knows who she's voting for and sought out Twitter as an additional way to keep her finger "on the pulse" of the campaign. She's not a voter who will be swayed to another party or one who needs to be motivated to vote.

The 2011 federal election has been widely touted as the "Twitter" election, with questions arising over whether use of  Twitter and other social media could influence the course of the campaign, like it did for Barack Obama or Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

But experts says it's unlikely social media will have any real impact and the portion of Canadians engaging in the online conversation is still slim.

How the leaders stack up

Stephen Harper 

Facebook likes: 45,172

Twitter followers: 115,883

Michael Ignatieff

Facebook likes: 45,209

Twitter followers: 78,156

Jack Layton

Facebook likes: 35,695

Twitter followers: 70,594

Gilles Duceppe

Facebook likes: 6,168

Twitter followers: 50,425

Elizabeth May

Facebook likes: 8,537

Twitter followers: 16,432

Note: Numbers accurate as of 6 p.m., April 1, 2011.

Facebook figures for Canadian users seem impressive. The website says it has more than 15 million active users in Canada, accounting for 45 per cent of the population.

But how many are using the tool to engage with the campaign? It's hard to measure. The leaders' Facebook pages range from a high of more than 45,000 likes for Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper to a dismal 6,000 likes for Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe's page.

"It's next to nothing and Twitter is even smaller. Not only in followers but also in reach," said Kyle Murray, associate professor of marketing and director of the School of Retailing at the Alberta School of Business.

Twitter doesn't release country breakdowns of users, but some estimates put use in Canada around 10 per cent. As for those following the leaders, Harper is at the top with more than 115,000 followers, Ignatieff has 78,000, Layton is just under 71,000, Duceppe 50,000 and Green leader Elizabeth May ranks lowest at 16,000.

In the first five days of the campaign, a software program found almost 2,500 blogs, 10,000 online news articles, 2,600 forum posts and 72,000 tweets coming from Canada that mention the election.

But who's paying attention? A recent Cornell University and Yahoo! Research study reconfirmed that Twitter is still dominated by a noisy few. It found that around .01 percent of the site's population —  or 20,000 users — sent half of all Tweets. The study said categories of Tweeters tended to follow their own kind, with celebrities following celebrities, media following media and bloggers following bloggers.

Some experts say, however, that those numbers don't show the potential reach beyond the immediate follower and fan base.

"This is still a niche communications tool but the people who are on it really matter because they are the influencers," said Queen's University film and media studies professor Sidneyeve Matrix.

Among the influencers are those who care about politics, like organizers and politicians, those who simply spread the message on to friends — and of course, the media.

"This election the biggest advantage of being on Twitter is having the newspapers, radio and TV talking about you being on Twitter," said Murray. "Actually being on Twitter is having very little impact so far."

Stories recently appearing in the news about social media use include the Twitter-based goading between Ignatieff and Harper to have a one-on-one debate, outrage over Green Party leader Elizabeth May's exclusion from the leaders' debates and the Liberal party's plan to stream its platform announcement live on the internet while taking questions from the Twitterverse.

But also making the media rounds are the inevitable 140-character Twitter gaffes. Conservative backbencher Cheryl Gallant recently apologized for calling Michael Ignatieff "Igaffi" in an apparent comparison to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. And Nova Scotia Senator Michael MacDonald was blasted after calling two reporters "pathetic" in a Tweet. He told the Hill Times he's now taking a break from the tool.

"There's more danger on the downside right now than there is potential on the upside," said Murray.

The truth is no one knows how much impact social media has when it comes to the ballot box or swaying the voters, says Daniel Rubenson, an assistant professor in politics at Ryerson University.

"It's actually quite difficult to discern what effect social media is going to have on turnout or the election campaign," said Rubenson. "It's still a relatively new set of technologies, set of tools and there hasn't been that much systematic, rigorous analysis on the effects of it."

The common perception is that the key demographic targeted via social media is youth — a demographic also the least likely to vote.

In the last election — which saw the lowest voter turnout in history with 59 per cent of registered voters casting their ballots — a dismal 37 per cent of youth (aged 18-24) went to the polls. Compare that to 68 per cent of those aged 65 to 74, and it's easy to see why seniors are seen as key to securing an electoral win.

New Canadians have also been targeted in this campaign by the Conservatives eager to secure a majority. A recent study by Environics Analytics suggest an online campaign might reach that demographic.

The study by Environics Analytics and the digital strategy firm Delvinia suggested that young, upwardly mobile immigrants living in Canada's largest cities are more likely to be the creators of social media.

The online study of 23,144 people measured the frequency of use of 10 social media platforms and found newcomers from China, India and the Philippines were more active because of their youth, sociability, desire to stay in contact with overseas relatives and homeland tradition of mobile phone use.

Those who followed social media, but didn't participate as much, tended to be older suburbanites with established families. And those opting out altogether included small-town seniors, farmers, blue collar workers and risk-averse suburban families.

For Jen Evans, founder and chief strategist of Sequentia Environics, that just means tremendous growth potential.

"We may be early days yet there is obviously an attraction to the format," said Evans.

"One of the reasons for apathy is voters feel very removed from the process and this brings them much more into the back and forth of what's happening," said Evans. "It's almost like the House of Commons coming into an arena where they can see and engage in the debate."

And while social media may not be producing tangible benefits just yet, Kyle says, it would be detrimental for a politician to ignore the sphere altogether.

Those embracing the medium come across as "innovative and young and connected," he says.

"Even for people who don't use a computer much to hear that one of the politicians is completely disconnected and uncomfortable with new media, I think would reflect very badly."