Claims of a social media transformation in politics and government are widening. Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi has been dubbed Canada’s first “social media Mayor” and, indeed, he dwarfs most every Canadian politician from any government level on Facebook and Twitter. He is not alone, as a younger cadre of those elected and aspiring exert greater online prowess in both campaigning and governing.
Yet transformation can often be stymied by tradition, as those engrained in the old ways of doing things simply continue to do them well, or at least well enough to get elected. And new media is intertwined with an old media that is adapting as well. So what are the real impacts of social media on who gets elected and how?
The answers to such a lofty question will no doubt unfold for many years to come, but examining Toronto, Canada’s largest city – set to elect a mayor and 44 councillors in October – may provide some insight. This year’s race is particularly notable given the rather colourful incumbent (to be polite) and noteworthy challengers. Councillors also matter greatly within a quasi-parliamentary chamber that nonetheless lacks formal partisan structures.
With respect to the mayoral contest, social media would seem to be mainly amplifying the leading contenders, Rob Ford, Olivia Chow, and John Tory. By July, candidate Chow had amassed some 55 thousand Facebook likes, for example, more than doubling the Mayor’s total on his official government page. John Tory and Councillor Karen Stintz trailed with roughly 6,000 and 1,200 likes, respectively. While Chow garnered a similar cadre on Twitter, here she was widely surpassed by Ford’s main Twitter account with a following in excess of 160,0000 (not all of whom are living in Toronto). Tory and Stintz once again trailed with approximately 24,000 and 17,000 followers, respectively.
By contrast, it is interesting to note that by mid-summer interim-Mayor Norm Kelly’s Facebook following was only about one thousand strong, despite his heightened power and profile. Such a modest level suggests that while social media is making some inroads electorally, its impacts on the mechanics of governing may be more tempered.
This point is seemingly reinforced by the Council as a whole. Midway through 2014, well into their mandate and with an election closing in, nearly one half of members did not have any social media links present on their official City of Toronto home pages. Among those that did so, moreover, a wide variance separated those actively using such channels and those with largely stagnant accounts. It bears noting here that councillors are required to set up separate social media accounts for their campaigns.
While social media knows few boundaries, consider the task at hand for a councillor seeking re-election, namely to mobilize a plurality of actual voters within a single ward. The hope for some is that social media can galvanize newer rivals, but the offsetting advantage of an incumbent’s brand recognition looms large. Such issues are not strictly technological alone and the absence of meaningful turnover has led some such as Leo Longo to persuasively argue for term limits (see the June issue of Municipal World).
Social media’s importance is also shaped by traditional media and the giant digital footprints of television and (previously print-based) newspapers. Surpassing the mayoral candidates on Facebook as just one illustration, the Toronto Star boasts nearly 150,000 likes (a small proportion of its Toronto-based readership alone that surpasses one million on Saturday). Toronto Life and the Toronto Sun also record weightier Facebook levels (almost 75,000 and 25,00, respectively) than most all local candidates and elected officials.
As Rob Ford has shown vividly, of course, there is no more effective driver of social media traffic than the traditional media’s coverage of controversy. For the lone aspiring candidate in a single ward, the temptation to draw attention through antics or remarks can only grow. It’s hard to see how such an environment yields a more inclusive, thoughtful, and grassroots contest of ideas, despite the genuine efforts of many to do just that.
What is certain is twofold: social media remains in its infancy and a new politics requires more profound change than merely layering virtual platforms onto existing democratic structures.