How will social media affect the federal election?
TheStar.com – news/globalvoices
Published On Mon Apr 04 2011. By Craig and Marc Kielburger
In Egypt, a young woman stood in the streets and screamed for an overthrow of government—then posted the video on YouTube. In Tunisia, “Thank you Facebook” was scrawled on a building during a protest in the capital. In Syria, one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, young people use the Internet to leak footage of police officers murdering demonstrators.
Canada is one of the most computer literate countries in the world, with a high level of social media penetration. How will young Canadians use these tools during the federal election campaign?
Will they use Facebook to organize a 20,000-person rally for a carbon tax, or call a sit-in on one of our dwindling glaciers? Call flash mobs across major cities to protest the funding gap in First Nations education?
Or will total immersion in interactive media redefine the notion of transparency in government? Call them the online cohort: the kids who grew up with 24-hour news cycles, unlimited access to information, and the ability to follow the mundane activities and intimate thoughts of hundreds of friends.
This generation has a sense of entitlement that will demand involvement, consultation and collaboration in the process of governing.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were found in contempt of Parliament for failing to produce detailed spending reports. The media, too, lamented a lack of communication from the administration. But for youth, transparency means more than releasing the cost of crime legislation or stealth fighter jets. They don’t want information parsed or manipulated by third parties. They want to set the political agenda.
Party leaders launched election websites like they might manifestos—Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will host town hall meetings online. The NDP’s Jack Layton has an iPhone app that lets users virtually track his campaign.
These are opportunistic promotional tools to a Wiki leaks generation normally indifferent to politics and wary of mainstream media.
In the midst of downloadable campaigns, there’s an online community mobilizing around issues.
The non-partisan site leadnow.ca generates debate about national values. Users rank policy issues, then pledge support to the party leader who will adapt their platform accordingly. It’s Canada’s embryonic answer to Moveon.org, the U.S. site that helped nudge Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign to victory.
That same year, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty saw legislation that would impose stricter rules on young drivers halted by an online opposition of more than 100,000 Facebook users.
Up until the fall of his Conservative minority government, Harper spammed his Twitter following with links to official statements and photo ops. Hours after meeting the Governor General to dissolve parliament, he tweeted congrats to his son, Ben, on a volleyball team victory, and thanked Vancouver deli owners for some Kabanosy sausage. It’s hard not to react with cynicism, with such a marked difference in Harper’s tweets in office to the campaign trail.
There’s an expectation of immediacy, intimacy and authenticity that comes with the ability to tweet directly to a following of, say more than 100,000 people. We want to hear thoughts and reactions from leaders as they campaign, meet the unemployed worker or the small business owner. We want to know what they are reading, which might be influencing their policy decisions. We want to be keystrokes away from our local MP.
Beyond campaign quips about sausage, young people want to set the agenda on environmental protection, heath care, education and open government—the top issues identified on a survey from leadnow.ca.
We cast rounds of ballots for Canadian Idols and watch Twitter messages scrolling on the bottom of news programs with the expectation that somehow our opinion will find a voice with our own representatives in government—and it’s more than one vote at election time. Why can’t we provide feedback on government services via Facebook? Why not an e-suggestion box?
We want to hashtag a proposed policy and get live updates on its legislative process, and then respond with concerns if it dies. We want to download the all-leader’s debate on iTunes. We want to tweet questions to ministers and get an authentic response. It’s not unheard of—Industry Minister Tony Clement has been known to have policy discussions with his Twitter following.
The social media generation doesn’t know the meaning of inaccessible. They certainly won’t stand for anything less than total transparency from government.
Marc and Craig Kielburger are children’s rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Their column appears Mondays online at thestar.com/globalvoices.
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