They’re calling it the country’s first Twitter election.
At least, that’s what some in the Twittersphere are calling it. And in some ways, the name holds up: Information-hungry journalists, political buffs and some politicians have tweeted up a storm since the federal election was called, weighing in on debates and rallies, and feeding national news coverage online and off.
And then there’s Manitoba.
Outside the political ring, a small but energetic group of election-watchers has kept up a stream of online debate, scrutinizing hot ridings and sizing up candidates.
The candidates, though, have had a hard time keeping up.
Sure, local politicians are using social media: Plenty have signed up for Facebook, and roughly 40 MPs and hopefuls are on Twitter, the site that’s garnered the most attention in recent years.
But their 140-character missives can feel pretty underwhelming once you get past the hype. Scan the collected writings of Manitoba’s tweeting candidates, regardless of party, and you’re likely to find election chatter at its blandest: plugs for campaign events, party praise, and platform promotion.
Twitter’s calling card is engagement — the ability to chat with followers and wade into the fray with relative ease. For politicians, that means setting aside talking points and being personal, conversational, even funny – a talent federal Industry Minister Tony Clement (@TonyclementCPC) has mastered. It’s the kind of activity that should come easily to veteran door-knockers and debaters. For many, it isn’t happening.
But then, few are listening. Numbers fluctuate constantly, but in the days leading up to the vote, half of the local candidates had Twitter audiences of fewer than 50 people. By comparison, more than 7,700 people follow local radio personality Ace Burpee. Just four Manitoba candidates had more than 1,000 followers: Rod Bruinooge, Steven Fletcher, Niki Ashton and James Bezan, all incumbent MPs.
Some users, like @mervtweed and @ShellyGloverMP, hadn’t written a single tweet by the end of last week. A handful, like @Wally_Daudrich, hadn’t uploaded a photo. Some seem to have forgotten they ever signed up. "Glad to be able to use new media to connect with constituents," wrote @JimMaloway in July, 2009. After one more tweet a month later, he hadn’t written a word since as of Friday.
In fairness, it’s possible some of the candidate accounts could be hoaxes. But a fake account left uncontested will, at best, confuse readers, and at worst, strike them as more legitimate the longer it’s allowed to stand.
Some candidates have fared well on Facebook: Niki Ashton boasts roughly 3,900 friends and an active profile. But on the whole, even that comparatively better-known site feels underused.
Some candidates seem to be getting into the swing of it. Winnipeg Centre hopeful Allan Wise, for one, had a volunteer tweet comments of various candidates during recent debates, taking a page from Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s playbook. But with just over 120 followers on Wise’s account as of Thursday, it’s hard to say whether that was energy well-spent.
It’s easy to see why candidates would be leery of Twitter. A lawn sign can’t help but be seen, but a few lines of text can easily get lost in the ether, especially when the medium boasts a relatively tiny national audience.
But that tiny audience is highly engaged.
For those who use them right, social media can take the impact of a one-on-one front porch conversation and multiply it to the masses. But with so many using it wrong, it’s hard to believe their social media efforts will translate into e-day votes.
On Twitter: @lindseywiebe