Last last week the Dominion Institute released the results of a study that raised and important election question. Why are Canadian political parties so dreadfully bad at using social media to communicate with young potential voters?

The poll of a thousand young people between the ages of 15 and 25 indicates that 83 per cent of them are on Facebook and 81 per cent have a cellphone. But despite that, only 90 percent say they had been not been contacted by a political party via social media or email. That’s not surprising.

All of the political parties are treating this election like any other – as a mean-spirited caravan of photo-ops, sound bites and platitudes Canadians should just politely ingest like stale bar snacks. When the parties do make use of the Web, they treat it as if it’s a broadcast medium, which is a little like mistaking a coffee shop for a megaphone. Unfortunately using the Web to spit out press releases taxes not carbon, but the non-renewable resource of patience.

It’s not like social media tools like wikis, Friendfeed, ustream, or Twitter haven’t been around long enough for politicians to figure out how to take advantage of them. And it’s not that political communications folks are thick as two planks nailed together. They’re not. So what’s at play here? It’s a genetic problem, really.

At the best of times the PR flaks for political parties want to carefully control, spin, mete out and craft key messages, positions and reports. And elections are hardly the best of times. In Conservative circles the lid gets clamped down on the lunatic fringe. And even the Tory camp has to deal with comments about immigrants, crime and a thousand cold cuts. True colours bleed through the smallest cracks. Unfortunately for the NDP, their fringe tends to make videos of themselves whacked on LSD. Tie-died colours bleed too.

So here’s the problem: when your main preoccupation is control, you bring that mindset to all your communication. And when you bring that thinking to social media it’s like handing a Jewish vegan a warm suckling pig as a hostess gift. Your offering is so off-base, so exquisitely wrong and awkward that you would have been better off staying home.

But, political parties are torn: they can’t resist a room, even a virtual room that they could work, but they want to work that room on their terms. They want their candidate glad-handing supporters and fielding canned questions while being safely flanked by stern men in suits that fit tight across the shoulders.

That’s why Stephen Harper’s Twitter feed comes across like the dirge-dull telegrams of a full-on narcissist:

Announced further tax relief for seniors.

Announced a plan to crack down on all tobacco products marketed to children.

Announced a plan to help first-time home buyers.

Attended a campaign rally in London, Ontario. Great crowd.

That’s not how to make friends and influence people on Twitter, Mr. Harper (or whichever hapless intern has to type that dreck). It’s the sort of ham-handed (to continue the pig metaphor) use of the medium that should make the 90 per cent of Canadian youth who have not been contacted online by a political party breath a collective sigh of relief. Who’d want that ego-centric jackass as a friend?

And, that brings me to the issue of genetics. Control is so baked into the DNA of political parties that they are anatomically incapable of using social media properly. They lack the community and conservation chromosomes. They are hardwired to transmit.

So, it would behoove all the parties, when next we are dragged through the ritual of the unwilling electing the unworthy, to subject themselves to a little gene splicing. Otherwise they will be cutting themselves out of a different sort of political party that will happily go late into the night without them.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...