I wrote the following article for the June 2011 (current) issue of Campaigns and Elections Magazine (Canadian Edition).

When our 41st general federal election was called, I proclaimed it would not be “The Twitter Election” many people were claiming it would be. While the label might have intended to recognize this particular election was going to be the most digital Canadian election to date, it also seemed to suggest Twitter would factor heavily in voter decisions.

Twitter has indeed become a popular online communication channel. Still, data show Canadian adoption of the tool prior to the election was light. An August 2010 report by comScore shows 13 per cent of Canadians (roughly four and a half million people)had Twitter accounts. It’s fair to say fewer used their accounts with any regularity. By comparison, 17 million Canadians have Facebook accounts and a December 2010 report by eMarketer showed Canada ranked higher than the US and UK in viewing and sharing online video.

Why the focus on Twitter? I suspect several reasons which can be rolled up into time and effort. Effective community building using a Facebook Fan Page can be demanding and there is a perception that producing meaningful videos requires a lot of skill. Worse yet, many people believe they must produce viral videos (don’t trust anyone who claims they can create “viral”). Blogs are also dismissed by many as requiring too much effort.

This leaves Twitter; the low hanging fruit of digital media. All you need is an Internet connection, web browser, email address and the creativity and moment it takes to articulate a thought in 140 characters.

Twitter did figure prominently in the narrative of the election. Many political candidates adopted Twitter as a tool for their campaigns, and journalists have for quite some time been following tweets (Twitter messages) to identify potential stories. That was only part of the story, though.

One tweet every six seconds

My research using Sysomos MAP found Twitter figured prominently in the discourse from the day the writ was dropped. Canadians issued more than 35,000 election-related tweets during that first weekend. Comparatively, each of the three weekends prior to the election call combined for an average of 1,800 tweets about Canadian federal politics.

There was an average of 15,000 election-related tweets issued from Canadian twitter accounts each day of the campaign. That’s a lot of Twitter traffic; roughly one tweet every six seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for six weeks. Noone can possibly follow that many tweets.

Invaluable and real-time focus group

Tweets emanated from an epicentre of the politically engaged – a combination of politicians, journalists, pundits and political junkies – who provided most of the fresh content and conversation. Most of those tweets were about issues that were easily explained in a finite amount of space. Their messages traveled through networks of Twitter followers into arenas that are otherwise not specifically political. With a single click, followers became rebroadcasters, creating an amplifier effect. The issues that were most ‘re-tweeted’ represented issues that resonated most with Canadians.

For researchers, analysts and campaign teams in-the-know, this activity represented an invaluable and real-time focus group. Forget digital communication and engagement (and my guess is many campaigns did), the information that could be mined from Twitter was like gold (and my guess is many campaigns didn’t).

One such example is the Conservative campaign against the iPod Tax, launched on April 15. The party invested heavily in an attack ad which they shared on YouTube. They also built a Facebook Fan Page hoping to build a groundswell of support. Had they been following the online discourse leading up to April 15, they would have noticed tweets on the issue barely registered (roughly 1,200 over 17 days). That in itself was shocking given this was the audience arguably most likely to purchase affected technology. That audience produced only 338 tweets on the issue the day the video was launched. Five days later, the video had been watched only 7,000 times and the Facebook Fan Page boasted only 405 fans. By contrast, the Liberal Party made-for-web video attacking Stephen Harper for screening rally attendees using Facebook amassed 60,000 views the day it was released (April 6).

While part of the difference in impact speaks to the nature of the issues, I believe more of the impact speaks to the tone of the videos and how certain content resonates within the digital culture.

The Velocity Election

Like many campaign issues, the iPod tax vanished as quickly as it appeared. The April 11 leak of the draft report on G8 spending resulted in about 4,000 tweets (roughly 24 per cent of Twitter traffic) that day. By the next day, G8-related tweets dropped below 1,500, lower than coalition-related tweets from the first day of the election (2,500). By April 13, the G8 issue was essentially forgotten. These, and many other examples, show how the news cycle has changed and become aligned with what many people call ‘Internet speed. Very few issues during this campaign stuck for more than a few days, or a few days at a time. I referred to this as the ‘velocity election’ and more recently I half-jokingly called it the ‘ADD election.’

Perhaps the biggest Twitter story of the election was the sharing of polling results during the election night media blackout (7pm-10pmET). Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act stipulates that voting results can only be shared within the time zone of their origin until all final polling stations across the country are closed. This provision had its first real run-in with the Internet in 2008 when many Canadians shared results, perhaps without knowing of the law. This time, there was a specific online effort to challenge the relevance of the law. A website was established to encourage Canadians to ‘Tweet the Results’ arguing that the greater the number of participants, the less effective the law and the harder it would be to enforce. Ironically, the owners of that site replaced their commitment to rebroadcast results during the blackout with a message saying they had decided to not risk coming up on charges.

So, was it the Twitter election?

In short, no. Most tweeters were clearly decided voters. They participated in a political discussion over a digital channel the way friends gather in a pub to chat about the hockey game – nobody does so to pick a new favourite team.

Perhaps more significantly, I didn’t see enough meaningful communication and community building by political candidates. In fact, most seemed to treat Twitter as an afterthought rather than part of a larger campaign effort.

The real questions though are about the MPs of our 41st session of Parliament. Was Twitter used opportunistically as part of their campaign? Or, is Twitter part of a greater commitment to engage with constituents and stakeholders, building their community and online credibility now for 2015?