Recently, we had a provincial election. I want to start with a VERY large caveat which is that this is NOT a political post. This is not about which party I think was right, or wrong, or would be the best for the province or would be the worst for the province. I’ll admit that I’m not a huge political participant. I’ve voted in every election in which I’ve been eligible and I tend to try to keep up to date on issues, but I don’t follow a lot of daily governing. But that’s fine, because this isn’t a post about politics. Rather, this is a post about my personal experiences with social media during this election and how I feel all the parties used (or misused) social media during the election. I
The entire election on social media could probably be summed up with, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
One of the things that I saw from a lot of engagements through the course of the election was that people wanted to hear about platforms and not about complaints. They wanted to hear what the other parties were going to do about the issues that impact people in the province and when it came down to it, they didn’t want to hear about what other people hadn’t done, or had done wrong.
This represents a stark departure from just a year or two ago when the political conversation on social we focused on what the Liberal government was perceived to have done wrong. Two years ago, everyone was climbing all over the governing party for the various campaign promises that they believed were broken. But as the election date drew near, people began to shift. They already knew that story. They didn’t want to hear anymore about that story. They wanted to know what those who WEREN’T governing would do if they WERE.
I’ll stop here for a minute and talk about attack ads. This comes not from any significant study but rather from my conversations, online and offline, about the topic. They’re something that has always fascinated me. Personally, I hate them. They do nothing to convince me to vote for a party. In fact, attack ads tend to drive me away from a party. When I hear, “So and so said they’d do this, but they didn’t, and now we can’t trust them ever again”, it reminds me of children. It doesn’t matter to me if the ads are accurate, it drives me crazy. And every single person I talk to says the same thing.
But here’s the thing. They keep running them.
Why? Well, because the thinking is that they work. It would seem that convincing voters to do things is not super difficult. In the Eastern US, you’ve got a pretty good chance of winning your election if your last name is Kennedy or if you share the last name of someone that used to govern, who is now dead. People think, “oh yeah, I know them”.
Attack ads seem to run pretty much the same way. We say that we’re informed voters and that we’re not driven by simple advertising mechanics, but they keep running them.
Now there was something really interesting that I found during this election. It was the sound of silence. I think that the governing party did a very good job of sensing the mood and just letting it all play out. On social media, as the election got closer and closer, I heard a lot of people saying the same thing;
“They’re all the same. I don’t want to vote for anybody. There are no good candidates. There are no good parties.”
The parties seeking power turned up the volume. They talked about getting out to vote, they talked about the importance of vote turnout and they talked about the various downfalls and mistakes from the governing party. And the governing party? Well, they sort of took a stepped back.
Here’s the thing about elections. You sort of get three different types of elections. There are elections where the governing party gets tossed because people are just sick and tired of what they’ve done. This can be seen clearly in the last federal election as well as the provincial election BEFORE this recent one. There was a dynamic shift in numbers across the province and across the country. There was relatively high voter turnout, particularly in the last federal election, as people crossed party lines to choose new leadership.
There are also elections where people are so pleased with the existing government that they want to ensure it continues. This is also usually marked by solid voter turnout in an effort to solidify that party or leader.
And then there’s a third type of election. This is where voters are relatively undecided. They don’t believe there’s a good choice between candidates or parties and when it comes down to it, they don’t show up. This recent election seems to fall pretty solidly in this third category. These elections MIGHT signal a regime change, but not usually and certainly not a huge regime change as we saw in the first example. But what does that have to do with social media?
I’ll start by saying that I feel like I have a very non-partisan community on Twitter. I’m Twitter BFFs with a number of people across multiple parties. And what I saw during this recent election was a lot of people saying that they weren’t interested in any of the options. Since this fails to signal a regime change, the governing party (at least officially) really seemed to slow their social media chatter leading up to voting. Why chime in on conversations that could lead to negative engagement (which accounts for far too much of online political discussions) when it looks like things are going to be relatively “business as usual”?
There’s another part that I’ll touch on briefly which was the “social snafus” of several candidates. Every party discovered this time around that social media missteps hang around for a very long time. Each party ended up separating from a candidate that was deemed to have stated something inappropriate on social media. But one party had a bigger problem than others.
One of the parties had two candidates make comments online that were deemed inappropriate but they chose to cleave one candidate while keeping the other. They decided that their male candidate was contrite and as such could be saved while they believed that their female candidate had said something so heinous that it could not be forgiven.
The backlash was predictable. There was intense scrutiny and criticism towards the party who believed that this represented a sexist, misogynistic attack on women in politics. Further, there were suggestions that the party had attempted to dissuade the female candidate from having pictures of herself in bikinis and similar outfits across her social media platforms, as this was “inappropriate” for a political candidate.
At this point, much of the social capital that the party had developed seemed to disappear. The male candidate was defeated handily and the third party ended up winning the seat in the riding where the female candidate ended up running as an independent.
So what did I learn during this provincial election? I learned that we need to listen closely to social channels as they tend to signal SOME political shifts or processes but we also need to understand that our networks are not always representative of the population as a whole. For example, if you’re surrounded on social media by people from party X, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll think party X is going to win.
This isn’t something that only impacts political decisions. If you’re running a business and you only listen to the testimonials, you’re gonna get a big head and make poor decisions. I was once speaking with a local restaurateur about a complaint I had with his business. He said that honestly, criticism is even more important than praise. Praise tells you very little. It tells you that the basic direction you’re headed is right. On the other hand, criticism tells you EXACTLY where you’ve gone wrong and in navigation, a few degrees over a long distance puts you in Greenland instead of North America. Just ask the Vikings.
So surround yourself with voices that span demographics and interests and engage in purposeful and rational conversation. You might learn something. I always do.