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Digital support for Liberal leadership candidates could play important role

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OTTAWA - The deadline for Liberal leadership hopefuls to sign up new supporters for the party —and their candidacies — is Sunday.

But while each of the eight candidates will rely on their new recruits come ballot time, there is also the digital support base they've been building in recent months in the form of their following on social media.

Over the last six months, Justin Trudeau has signed up new Twitter followers at a rate far outpacing his rivals, gaining an average of 6,743 a month, with Marc Garneau trailing with an average of 886 followers a month.

As of late last week, Trudeau had 188,861 followers, Garneau had 11,840 and Hall Findlay had 7,511.

The number of followers definitely shouldn't be read as a digital coronation of Trudeau as Liberal king, said digital public affairs analyst Mark Blevis, who performed the social media analysis for The Canadian Press using a variety of different tools.

"Having a large follower base is important only because it means these people have committed to looking in on you, but how often do they actually do that?" Blevis said.

"What matters in the end is how many are going to put a checkmark next to your name."

While not every Twitter follower will equate to a vote when Liberals cast their ballots next month, social media can nonetheless be a vital tool for building supporter databases — vast pools of potential volunteers and donors.

Most research into the use of social media in the political sphere has found it's typically used to do little more than distribute campaign material, rather than engage in debate or conversation with voters.

That, however, is where the number of followers has the potential to come in handy.

A Pew Internet and American Life project concluded that about 40 per cent of Americans who use social media do so for civic or political activities, mostly to convince others to vote or share campaign messages.

Trudeau, Garneau and Martha Hall Findlay actually share thousands of the same followers, Blevis found.

But the rest appear to be quite different.

The word that most commonly appears in the biographies of Trudeau's digital fan base is "love." Other popular terms include "student," "music" and "writer."

Blevis said that indicates Trudeau appears to have tapped into an online community that doesn't immediately identify with politics, perhaps giving him new avenues for support that other candidates don't have.

For Garneau and Hall Findlay, the most common description for their followers is "politics," with "Canadian" and "political" also being popular terms.

Those same words are dominant in the profiles of candidates Joyce Murray, Deborah Coyne and David Bertschi.

The profiles for Karen McCrimmon and Martin Cauchon didn't provide enough information for analysis.

Murray's list of followers is different from the majority of other candidates.

A sample of 1,000 followers from each contestant, filtered through a tool called Status People, revealed that 54 per cent of Murray's 4,900 followers are either from fake or inactive accounts — accounts with very few, if any, tweets or followers, but which follow many people.

That's despite a series of high-profile endorsements for Murray, including major online groups which support the idea of electoral co-operation — a policy Murray is alone among the candidates in endorsing.

More than 65 per cent of the followers for the rest of the candidates are considered "good," with Trudeau having the highest percentage of good followers at 90 per cent.

By the numbers, Karen McCrimmon is the least present online, with only 253 followers and 117 tweets from her account. But it was only created last November.

Martin Cauchon has only tweeted 200 times since his account was set up in January 2011.

Blevis notes, however, that different candidates are seeking to reach different constituencies and not all members of the Liberal party are active online, making the digital sphere only one part of a much larger campaign.

But with social media likely to only grow in importance in the next round, the challenge for any politician will be to find a way to translate their real-time skills into virtual ones, said Blevis.

"Can they convert the experience of the public space, the shaking hands, the pancake breakfasts, into an online experience?" Blevis asked.

"Can you make people feel like they have your attention online?"

Garneau has certainly captured the attention of one high-profile person on Twitter — his fellow astronaut Chris Hadfield sent him a Happy Birthday tweet from space.

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