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October 18, 2012

Spontaneous, Reciprocal & Personal: The Elusive Social Media Success for Political Leaders

by Jane Hilderman

By Michael Bacal

Last Thursday afternoon at a Facebook Marketing Summit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Justin Trudeau—MP and leadership candidate for the Liberal Party—sat down for a candid fireside chat with Jordan Banks, Managing Director of Facebook Canada. For a little over half an hour, Trudeau discussed with Banks the importance of social media in politics, its unique potential to mobilize and engage younger citizens, and the role it could play in shaping the long-term future of Canadian politics.

The relationship between social media and citizenship has quickly become one of the most pressing issues of our time. As we have already witnessed over the last few years, it has played a significant role in helping determine everything from presidential elections to social revolutions. However, the potential it has to enable new and different kinds of participatory politics and democratic engagement still remains somewhat unclear and has raised a number of fundamental political questions about the democratic process and meaning of citizenship online. What has, amid all of this, become increasingly certain is that we as Canadians need to seriously confront these issues, and that the ways we begin thinking about them now will chart the course for the evolution of Canadian politics in the future.            

A Vehicle for Authenticity...

Justin Trudeau, whose own social media savvy and appeal to younger voters are each believed to be crucial to the re-building the Liberal party, directly addressed many of these issues over the course of the interview. In particular, he emphasized the importance of social media to act not only as something to “bring people together,” but as a more direct “vehicle for being authentic.” The latter served as one of the central points for him over the course the conversation, as he continued to return to what he sees as the potential for social media to usher in a more spontaneous, personal and reciprocal form of public engagement between citizens and politicians.

In this direction, he cheerfully envisioned the use of social media platforms as a new force for reshaping the public sphere into something more along the lines of a 'house party' than anything else. Contrasting this with the traditional model of a politician speaking endlessly about himself to voters from high atop a podium, he pointed to social media's ability to enable politicians and citizens alike to engage in different conversations, freely move from topic to topic, and mill about among a diverse throng of guests and viewpoints.

On Crowd-sourcing Potential...

He went on to consider new possibilities of “crowd-sourcing ideas” and the collaborative opportunities social media can offer to encourage younger voters to directly contribute to (and along) a wider range of issues. “Young people don't want to hear about partisan politics. They want to hear . . . what are you going to do about the big issues?” he stated bluntly at one point. In this direction, he is optimistic that new ways of interacting through social media can offer citizens other sources of information and avenues for participatory engagement—ones that can complement or serve as alternatives to the older models of political engagement; the ones so widely believed to negatively reinforce the cynicism and indifference experienced by so many young citizens across the country.

As fun as Trudeau's party metaphor seems, he nevertheless cautioned against the pitfalls of online engagement, especially concerning the danger of people simply “selecting their little universes” online and effectively narrowing and insulating their political horizons. For him, the main political challenge that needs to be confronted while transitioning to a digital political future is in finding inclusive and productive ways of breaking down these barriers and enabling a virtuous circle promoting genuine dialogue and interaction. Trudeau understood the need for this to be addressed from both sides and that—to return to his concerns with authenticity—the “participatory solutions” to our political issues will require serious and lasting engagement between both politicians and citizens alike.

Four Questions all Political Parties Need to Answer about Social Media

By the end of the interview, several dominant themes emerged and set the playing field for the central questions all political parties should be currently asking themselves about the role of social media in Canadian politics:

  • Among these, the first set of questions—as Trudeau made clear—concern authenticity and how to forge productive new relationships between politicians and citizens;
  • The second, orbit around how social media can be used as an effective tool for direct citizen engagement along a wide host of political matters;
  • The third, address new information flows and how to successfully adapt to the heightened rhythms of the social web;
  • The fourth, raises questions about how citizens will organize around various issues and how citizenship will be enacted online.

In addition to all of these, political parties will also have to, necessarily, remain careful of the myriad challenges involved. Even in social media's infancy, we can trace out many of the risks that can arise in its widespread adoption. Already, we have seen that it can quickly turn “authenticity” into micro-managed PR; deluges of information and choice can alienate as easily as they empower; and immediate shifts can leave behind marginal communities with less online proficiency—from here, the list goes on and on.

How these different kinds of questions and challenges will be answered will delineate the contours of politics and citizen engagement in this country, and the adoption of social media by different parties will prove to be an interesting transformation in Canadian politics to witness.

Michael Bacal is a Samara volunteer.
LABELS:
  • political parties
  • social media
  • political participation
  • political engagement
  • Liberal Party
  • citizen engagement
  • guest blogger

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