Trudeau's social media mastermind tours Europe, explains strategy

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/flickr

I had an ominous exchange on my way to a presentation in the German capital by Tom Pitfield, the digital mastermind behind Justin Trudeau's success -- as billed by Factory Berlin, a high-tech campus of startups and freelancers.

Picking up a snack at a store nearby, the French clerk shook his head when I asked him about his country's presidential election: "What do you think?" he posed back to me. "It's bad, yes. I believe Le Pen will win."

Why? I queried. "It's just before a Monday bank holiday in France, some people will be away and won't vote [and] others don't want to vote anyways." He was resigned.

The French runoff presidential vote is now between the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and the "newbie" Emmanuel Macron, who's only 39 and has been compared to Trudeau. Macron is seen as a political outsider but is a former investment banker who graduated from the prestigious, elite École nationale d'administration (ENA).

"It's true, the French media have made the same comparisons," Charline Merieau told rabble.ca. "But they don't have the same ideas or the same problems [to tackle]."

The 25-year-old from the Vendée region pointed out that Macron's use of Twitter and his email newsletters are ways for the En Marche leader to explain his platform -- not so much for images of doing yoga or being in the outdoors like Trudeau.

"Macron isn't looking for interaction with the public the way Trudeau did. He's more about his message," said Merieau, who works for a fashion retailer.

Our hubs

I realized after the night was through -- our world really is about contained spaces: physical, mental and digital. The talk was in a high-tech hub. We all exist in cosseted worlds.

Pitfield, a childhood friend of Trudeau's and a former IBM innovation expert, went through a top 10 Buzzfeed-like list of What He Learned from the Election Campaign. He also dropped that he had been in Europe "helping political campaigns in three countries" and was alarmed by the rise of fascist and populist movements -- all using the same tactics on social media.

"I am scared," he revealed. "We do live in echo chambers -- it's not hard. It's how those computer algorithms work."

Calling Trudeau a "Jedi" (i.e. showing a single-minded focus), Pitfield was recruited ahead of time to slowly build the PM's image. The team first identified 40 swing ridings and eventually won 39 of those. Impressive. And how was this done?

Pitfield -- who heads the progressive think-tank Canada 2020 -- and his team used social media to gather information about those voters on Facebook or on their website, realchange.ca, to find out what issues resonated with them the most and then spoke to those issues: environment, jobs, education, economy and immigration.

"You need to engage, have legitimate conversations," emphasized Pitfield. "With explicit consent, we gathered people's personal information [required by Canadian law]…then, we would have honest conversations with them. This helped us immensely."

His team spent two years getting people to "change their minds."

They found out: who to target, what content they liked, how to reach them (i.e. which social media they used and in what form) and most vitally, what would motivate them to vote for Trudeau.

Merieau, who is pro-Macron, said her candidate is using data in a different way. Macron is using information about where his support is weak to get his campaigners out door-to-door and not relying on social media per se to do the persuading.

"We never use this face-to-face stuff in France but that's what Macron is doing."

Countering the echo chamber

Sitting in the audience was the British founder and editor of The Echo Chamber Club -- a weekly newsletter seeking to counter "the opinions of liberal metropolitans."

"Everyone loves him, don't they?" Alice Thwaite stated to me about Trudeau. "He's so good-looking and says all the right things. It's just like Trump really [who courts the media and makes it all entertaining]."

Thwaite, 27, is disturbed by the use of advertising tactics which she says is causing a deterioration in politics. Specifically "A/B" testing on campaign messages -- i.e. identifying what headlines would be the most attractive to the public.

"It's how Hilary Clinton's campaign was ruined," she explained. "They used the message 'Vote for me because I'm a woman' and thought that would work. In the end, she sounded so scripted."

According to Thwaite this kind of A/B advertising tactic is about seizing our "monkey brains." A/B methods are about click-through rates, not about actual policy.

"In the American election people were getting farther apart," she said. "They were being told to shut up and what happens? Things go underground…that's what you do, create an enemy and force people into their tribes. It works in digital marketing as well."

Thwaite said last year, she predicted the odds were much greater for Brexit and for a Trump win: "I won a lot of bets."

Whatever the reality, she remains positive: "This is better than it was in [the early 2000s]. People aren't so apathetic anymore. They know they can't coast along. They have to act."

Germany's anti-Trudeau

Perhaps, the turning of the tide is happening in Germany where the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has seen its popularity dwindle from rates at 15 per cent last year to about seven to 10 per cent in recent polls. Its leader also recently stepped down amid infighting in the movement.

Who's rising? Martin Schulz, a former head of the European Parliament and now leader of the leftist Social Democratic (SPD) party. Schulz, a bookish man in his 50s, is the opposite of Trudeau. He's not telegenic and doesn't use social media much, but he's now considered a serious contender against "Mutti" -- Mother Merkel as she's called. His party is now neck and neck with Angela Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

"He speaks about issues," said Artur Lebedev, a southern German who now lives in Berlin. "He speaks like a normal person and in this way, he is sort of like Trudeau -- the authenticity part."

Lebedev said Merkel seemed wooden in contrast, but then, that's her appeal: "Speaking spontaneously is fine sometimes but also, for me, you might think this politician could be fickle, change their mind once they are in power."

A replay of 2002

Back to the French election -- Sylvano Varlet, a business manager with a video game company, looks to the past.

"It's like 2002 all over again when it was between Jacques Chirac and the father of Marine -- Jean-Marie Le Pen. Everyone had to get behind Chirac and he won by 82 per cent," said Varlet, who also admits Macron has some Trudeau characteristics -- such as the "honest broker" bit.

"[Macron] is really friendly and focused on people as well," said Varlet, originally from the Lyon region.

"I think this time though, Macron might win with about 60 to 70 per cent of the vote, it won't be as high," said the 27-year-old who plans to vote for Macron.

Merieau thinks it might be close: "Compared to 2002, Marine has worked to make the Front Nationale more modern and she has succeeded. There are less people against her."

She fears supporters of the other candidates who "lost" won't vote: "My brother was a supporter of [leftist] Melanchon. He doesn't know how to vote on May 7. Every day I send him reasons to vote for Macron."

Near the end of the session, a Montrealer proclaimed that he'd been living in Berlin for 10 years and he fought to vote in Canada's 2015 election: "I honoured my German roots and flew back to Montreal to vote for Trudeau because I know you have to fight fascists."

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes for rabble.ca.

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/flickr

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