Electoral campaigns and social media – a limited reach

Social media is now a big part of North American politics. Photo by Cazimira, Flickr

Social media is now a big part of North American politics. Photo by Cazimira, Flickr

The now unavoidable role of social media in political campaigns has caught the attention of many people. After all, it seems that any self-respecting party must be on Facebook or Twitter. The same goes for party leaders and candidates.

Yet it raises the question – can they really make a difference?

If you ask me, I think they still have little bearing on voters’ ultimate choices. But in the context of a strategic communication plan, they are valuable assets in any political campaign’s toolbox.

Of obvious benefit is their ability to make contact with hundreds, thousands and sometimes millions of people at once, simply by pushing a button. Not so long ago the only way to send a message tightly controlled by electoral strategists was buying air time. This method is still integral to electoral communications and chances are that it will remain so for a good while yet.

However, there is a sure shift toward social media that political parties are not overlooking. Time will tell how B.C.’s political parties face up to the challenge when the political campaign kicks off in less than two months. It will be the first one here since the explosion of new mass communication technological devices – a sort of campaign 2.0. The 2009 campaign saw an onset of the practice, but the upcoming campaign will be the one where social media becomes key to political parties’ communication strategies.

The impact of these communication models on the electorate is yet to be determined. We can wonder whether social media like Facebook and Twitter are just enormous echo chambers without any real influence. These new media are so jammed up with messages that it is difficult for the uninitiated to see clearly into them. And this is, evidently, political parties’ main challenge – how does one stand out in the midst of a continuous tempest of messages, often contradictory, in order not only to draw attention but to transform that attention into votes. The main goal is to be able to pierce, as quickly as possible, into many influential networks.

For now, at least, this might be the social media’s main asset. It enables voters to share their preferences with a greater number of people with the least effort. Electoral campaigns have always fuelled conversations between friends, family and colleagues, but Twitter and Facebook speed up the action.

It’s not, of course, a matter of setting aside traditional communication models, at least not yet. As demonstrated by a survey done during the last day of the electoral campaign in the United States by Pew Research Center, people aged 18 to 29 who used social media to discuss their electoral choices, encourage friends, family or others to vote for a specific candidate or simply to say who they voted for, were a lot more numerous than people over 50. There still is, obviously, an important generational gap in the use of social media in the context of electoral campaigns.

It’s easy to see that, in the near future, political parties will have to plan for communication strategies involving both social and traditional media in order to reach different types of voters. At least for the time being, social media still has a limited reach when it comes to electoral campaigns.

Translation Monique Kroeger