OTTAWA - A massive surge in online chatter about federal politics proves that social media will be a force to be reckoned with during this election campaign.
The Canadian Press is launching an online project over the five-week campaign to help find nuggets of news in all the noise.
Together with digital public affairs strategist Mark Blevis and a software program called Sysomos, the news agency will be parsing thousands of tweets, blogs, videos and comments to keep track of the digital pulse of Canada throughout the campaign.
The real-time analysis will track what amounts to a giant focus group, and assess how its views on policies and politicians shape the campaign.
"There's a lot of talk about what Canadians think and who gets to decide," said Blevis, who runs a consulting firm called Full Duplex.
"Decide by following what the conversation is."
Over 22,000 messages tagged as being related to Canadian politics or the election have been sent since Saturday morning on the microblogging site Twitter.
That's more than 12 times more than the average weekend — which might see a total of 1,800.
Thousands more messages have been put out by candidates, parties, pundits and general observers who don't use the tags associated with those two categories.
"It's like walking into a massive cocktail party where everybody is talking and you can't hear everything," said Blevis.
Social media doesn't reach all Canadians. At best, there are about 17 million Canadians on Facebook and around 4.5 million on Twitter.
But those who are using the sites to talk politics create a giant focus group — one that has the power to shape the campaign.
"There's always a risk with a (traditional) focus group. You hope you are getting a good cross section of Canada, you can only call maybe 1,000 people in one night," said Blevis.
"Here, with the right tools, you have a larger group of people, you have a larger pool of content to evaluate and instead of asking about specific issues you are going to get information potentially about all the issues."
The methodology isn't perfect.
The system being used by The Canadian Press will only track posts that use specific tags that identify the content as being related to the campaign or to a party, like #elxn41 for all election-related posts on Twitter or cpc for those related to the Tories.
But it will seek to go beyond the horserace of followers and Facebook "likes," to figure out who is actually winning the online war.
For example, of the three main party leaders, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has the most followers on Twitter.
But according to a tool that measures how often people interact with a politician, it was Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who, as of mid-Monday, arguably had the most online clout.
The Canadian Press analysis will check in on how often people are attempting to reach out to political leaders online and how often they answer back.
It will also attempt to gauge how the issues are percolating.
In the first few days, "coalition" was a popular discussion term but by mid-afternoon Monday, "tax" was surfacing more often.
Earlier Monday, Harper had unveiled a platform plank that would give a tax cut to families, while Ignatieff spent part of the day talking about corporate tax cuts.
But social media won't just be about how parties influence voters, Blevis said.
"There's a greater chance of . . . social media sentiment influencing policy and campaign strategy than there is of any of those services having an impact on the vote specifically," said Blevis.