Lessons learned from Facebook's Onion Ring

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The Internet played an important role in electing Barack Obama: it can play a major role in defeating Stephen Harper and his Conservatives. Recently two Facebook groups have shown how quickly negative opinion can be mobilized, and expressed. The playful "Can this Onion Ring get more fans than Stephen Harper" page resulted in a nearly six to one victory over the 30,000 Harper fans. The "Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament" page grew quickly to over 225,000 members, attracting mainstream media comment. By keeping public attention focused on the shutdown of Parliament, it gets some of the credit for the recent shift in voting intentions away from Harper's Conservatives.

The rules of political engagement are changing. Managing the media, the key to political success in the age of politics as public relations, is no longer enough. The various mantras: less is more, one message a day, politicos communicate mainly through television so keep visual images under tight control, restrict media access and crush critics, were not designed for the world of Twitter, Facebook and smart phones.

Obama won North Carolina because 75,000 volunteers recruited on Facebook got out the vote in a state no local Republican imagined losing. Social media helped Obama defeat Hillary Clinton, who looked unbeatable... until she lost the Iowa caucuses to him, in their first head-to-head battle.

Social media smarts do not just happen. The Obama campaign had a Facebook founder on board his campaign from the beginning. And, obviously, an Obama-like candidate does not happen along very often either.

In the next Canadian election, the Conservatives could win more seats than any of the others, or (gasp!) win more seats than all of the others, but it does not have to happen. Canadians who do not want to live through more Conservative minority, or the disaster of a Conservative majority, can use the Internet to defeat them. We do not have to wait for another party or leader to emerge as an alternative. A negative campaign will do very well, provided it comes from the Net roots.

Defeating Harper entails setting out a riding-by-riding Internet strategy to make each Conservative Member of Parliament pay electorally for voting to shut down Parliament twice. Defeat our Conservative MP Facebook groups need to emerge across the country in every Conservative held riding.

The Conservatives can be defeated by a combination of the opposition parties, but the opposition parties are not going to combine in order to defeat them. The Liberals want to replace the Conservatives as government, the NDP wants to replace the Liberals as the official opposition, the Greens want to replace the NDP as the conscience of Parliament (and the voice for what comes next) and the Bloc just wants to hold on against all comers to what it has got. These partisan objectives override the common objective of defeating the government.

In the last election, Vote for the Environment, an activist Internet campaign helped New Democrat Linda Duncan defeat a sitting Conservative, in Harper's home province. In preparing for the next election, it is up to Internet activists to devise a way of making the same thing happen, in as many Conservative ridings as possible. Supporting the opposition candidate with the best chance of beating the local candidate base on the results of the last election is an obvious way to go.

Past calls for strategic voting floundered because they were not local enough. Deciding which candidate to back against a Conservative cannot be decided by a centralized campaign. Citizens wanting to throw out their Conservative MP need to be "built-in" to the campaign to do it.

Nobody can give a prime minister a mandate to send parliamentarians home, just because he fears what they might do to his career. Only citizens coalescing in a democratic spirit can send the following message to any future prime minister: citizens elect a Parliament, and expect it to meet; MPs that vote to shut themselves down, deserve to be barred from doing it again.

Duncan Cameron writes from Montreal.

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