Social media is a startlingly new form of communication, which is having an increasing impact on our elections. At the federal level, Twitter didn't exist during the 2008 campaign. In 2011, it was a hub of activity, as partisans, staffers and citizens alike traded barbs and dedicated significant time to convincing their 'tweeps' of the value of voting for their party.
In the 2011 Ontario provincial election, Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservative campaign was derailed in the final days of the campaign by homophobic literature being distributed in select ridings. They never anticipated that the paper leaflets they quietly passed out would become a social media sensation in a matter of hours.
Although Francophones have been slower to adopt Twitter, which began life as a primarily English medium, this year has seen significant buy-in from Francophones in Quebec, especially as Twitter took on a large role in the coordination and discussion of the ongoing student strike.
Although many of us feel as comfortable on Twitter as we do checking our email, for politicians it continues to be a learning experience. In most areas of politics, there is an established wisdom, which all parties generally follow. With slight variations, parties do voter contact, outreach and communications in the same way they have for years.
Politicians are learning as they go on Twitter, leading to many juicy mistakes for those of us in the chattering classes to mock.
I was on CBC radio's Homerun show Monday in Montreal (listen), talking about the role of Twitter and other social media in the upcoming provincial election campaign. After the interview I decided to assign letter grades to each party based on their performance on Twitter and other social media.
Although these rankings are highly subjective, my criteria in arriving at them were based solely on the social media performance of each party, and not how much I like them.
I looked at a few basic criteria of effective Twitter use. For starters, is a party on Twitter? Is their leader? Are many of their MNAs? Beyond that, are they using it properly?
Politics tends to be about broadcasting information, distributing your platform, press releases, etc. But Twitter is not a broadcast medium, it's designed to be interactive. Politicians who interacted with their Twitter followers, answered questions and embraced the spontaneity of the medium got high marks. Those who used it merely to broadcast information and push releases, and refused to interact, fared poorly.
The spontaneity of Twitter, which often allows us to get an unfiltered view of a politician's real views and thoughts, also leads to many gaffes, both large and small. If one of your candidates took to Twitter to call half the province racists, your grade is coming down (I'm looking at you, Mr. Legault).
Without further ado, here is our inaugural analysis of the social media prowess of each of Quebec's major parties. The main hashtags I looked at (hashtags are ID tags which identify a tweet as belonging to a particular topic on twitter) were #assnat and #polqc. It appears as if #qc2012 will be the election hashtag, but it was too new to really tell us much at this stage.
Quebec Liberal Party
Until about a month ago, the best word to describe the PLQ's attitude towards Twitter was contempt. Much has been written on the strategic folly of their disengagement from Twitter through the student strike, which deprived them of a golden opportunity to tell their side of the story.
An edict went out about a month ago, instructing Liberal candidates to create Twitter accounts. Unsurprisingly, this mass of Twitter newbs are not exactly taking the Quebec political world by storm.
Cabinet Minister Sam Hammad is the highest ranked Liberal on either hashtag, and he's way down the list. He also has only three thousand followers. Charest himself is not on Twitter, and to the extent the Liberals are using Twitter, they're doing it wrong. Most of their accounts are dedicated to broadcasting and interaction is minimal.
Pauline Marois also does not have a Twitter account, and she has been accused of buying Facebook likes. Despite this inauspicious start, she is saved by the active engagement of her MNAs and candidates. Bernard Drainville (fifteen thousand followers) and former Radio-Canada journalist cum PQ candidate Pierre Duschesne (sixteen thousand) lead the way when it comes to engagement and proper use of Twitter, and are followed by many of their caucus colleagues.
GRADE: B –
Coalition Avenir Quebec
Oh Francois, if only you didn't have to deal with all those pesky candidates! CAQ leader Francois Legault is on Twitter, appears to write all his own tweets, and has embraced the immediacy and interactivity of the medium with relish. He frequently engages in drawn out political debates on Twitter, notably with FEUQ President Martine Desjardins, and seems to have little hesitation when it comes to answering questions. Despite this fact, he still has fewer than 10 thousand followers. He also only follows around 300 accounts, instead of following everyone who interacts with him, as politicians should.
He would be cruising for an easy A in this ranking, if it weren't for the same Achilles heel that has plagued the CAQ and predecessor ADQ for years. Their candidates are woefully unprepared for prime-time.
The biggest social media story of the campaign so far has been a semi-literate and angry Twitter rant by CAQ candidate Kamal Lutfi, in which he called all sovereigntists racists. Legault dismissed him as a candidate, but the damage was done. That, along with more minor Twitter gaffes by other CAQ candidates, drops the party's score significantly. Too bad, because Legault is doing it right.
I am certainly partial towards Quebec Solidaire, but I don't think it’s unfair to say that they are really the gold standard when it comes to politicians on Twitter. Which isn't entirely surprising, given they were active on Twitter long before the other parties. Their progressive politics also appeal to the youthful demographic which makes up most Twitter users.
The personal account of co-leader Amir Khadir and the official party account are in the top five on both hashtags, and Khadir (twenty-six thousand followers) is clearly the most popular politician on Twitter. He's actually in a close race with rock star CLASSE leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois for most followers. He doesn't write all his own tweets, but those written by his staff are clearly marked. Co-leader Françoise David is no slouch herself, with eleven thousand followers.
With over thirteen thousand followers, QS's official party account has more followers than any other party, with the PQ a close second at eleven thousand, and the PLQ and CAQ far back.
From Khadir on down, everyone in QS seems to understand Twitter, and they all use it properly to interact and engage with their followers. The other parties would do well to take some lessons from how QS has harnessed Twitter to really reach out and interact with voters, which may have helped to boost their poll numbers.
ON is Jean-Martin Aussant, their leader and sole MNA, and he does well for himself with eight thousand followers and good interaction. But he is a lone voice in the wilderness, as ON has no other visible presence on twitter.
UPDATE: It was pointed out to me on twitter that ON candidate Luc Lefebvre is also present, with a little under three thousand followers and lots of interactivity. It's still not much, but I'll give them that they're better than the Greens! ON's grade has been raised from F/incomplete.
UPDATED GRADE: D
Quebec Green Party
If you get a lot of your political information from twitter you may be surprised to find that Quebec has a Green Party. Their leader, Claude Sabourin, is on twitter, sort of, with a whole 50 tweets and 91 followers. The Greens have traditionally been more of a protest vote, or parking spot, than a real party with designs on winning seats. Judging by their online presence, they don't plan on changing that anytime soon. They should be super active on Twitter, seeking to mobilize environmentally engaged young people. Sadly, they're as invisible here as they are everywhere else.
The truth is that social media will have a minimal effect on this campaign. It is still in an early adoption phase with francophone Quebeckers, and has traction primarily with young people. In a province of almost eight million people, the 26,000 who follow Khadir, for example, is only a drop in the bucket.
But, with student groups calling on the youth vote to help unseat Charest, and exceptionally high levels of engagement with Twitter around the issue of the student strike, it may play an important, if minor, role.
Students will be campaigning to unseat Liberals in around ten battleground ridings. If they can use social media to effectively mobilize their supporters around those campaigns, and pull the youth vote in general, Twitter could play a crucial role in deciding the outcome of an extremely close election.
But no matter what happens in this campaign, one thing is clear. Twitter will play an increasingly important role in elections going forward. I think that's likely to be a good thing. As a voter, I want to find out what a candidate actually thinks, not what their staff thinks will play well in their constituency. Twitter, when used properly, allows for remarkably unfiltered lines of communication between candidates and voters.
So if you don't have one, go create your own account! Otherwise you'll be missing out on the increasingly large part of election campaigns which play out in the virtual world.
For updates on Quebec politics, the student strike and the politics of social media, please follow me on twitter: @EthanCoxMTL