State of Twitter

Treasury Board President Tony Clement recently remarked that Twitter is important in the public policy process. The Parry Sound-Muskoka MP has discovered its utility in his own branding; he is often cited by Hill reporters and other observers alike as the politician making the most sincere effort at using the medium to engage with the political twittersphere.

But are they his constituents? In politics, anyone who has skillfully run a successful election campaign will tell you that there are two main objectives: finding out who would vote for your candidate (voter ID) and getting these identified voters to actually vote (get out the vote). Does Twitter do either of these things?

To be sure, Twitter’s strength is in amplification. Like blogging in the middle of the last decade, the average elector is not getting their news from Twitter but those that pen the articles that this elector reads, are consuming as many tweets as they can. Twitter’s political strength in terms of votes is changing the direction of discussion among opinion leaders and those that set the narrative.

During the last Ontario provincial campaign, PC, Liberal and NDP war rooms took to Twitter often with inconsequential results. Mid-level war room staffers in their early 20s tweeting about smart-metering and tax cuts on home heating came off as insincere. Reporters had already flagged and dismissed many of these partisans as just that and if the staffers were unknown quantities, they were largely unsearched, non-retweeted and thus unamplified. Better to spend one’s time knocking on doors or making phone calls to identify hard constituent data rather than the pseudonymous. Politically, Twitter is better used to challenge preconceptions. This is done most effectively when the source is trusted and high value. And as with anything else social, authenticity matters.

Watching the Canadian twittersphere for any length of time it is easy to see that its participants mostly lean left. In the United States, one can see that a good number lean right. Why is this so? When the champion of one’s ideology occupies the government pulpit, the megaphone of office is sufficient for many. However, getting the message out in opposition is always a challenge. When mainstream options aren’t available, creative use of alternative methods becomes a necessity. When in opposition, partisans will occupy alternative media. It was true for the Canadian Conservative blogosphere when the Conservatives were in opposition; it is true of this country’s Progressive twittersphere today.

Another theory may also prove supplementarily useful. It is no secret to us conservatives that engagement with non-political but ideologically-aligned people remains one of our greatest challenges; most of our people just want to be left alone. For the left, solutions to grievances are rooted in state solutions. For the right, most look to themselves or families for answers. Advocacy and appeal for government solutions (or criticism for a lack of them) is typical of the left. There are right-wingers on Twitter, however, as citizens who look outside government for solutions, they are more likely tweeting about the hockey game or Dancing With The Stars than about the merit of cuts coming from Clement’s office. Further, Twitter is more likely to be used by younger people and by those with more free time (students and the unemployed). These demographics are also more likely dependent on — and seek fulfillment from — government assistance.

The result? Twitter viewed politically has a leftward bias in Canada. For better or worse, that’s just the way it is. For truly social-media savvy reporters, this bias is understood rather than taken as a true cross-section of Canadian life. Twitter does provide an exciting new medium for direct participation and feedback in our democracy. However, taken as a poll, it is an incomplete picture. If Twitter were reflective of reality, it would have been nationalized as a strategic resource long ago.



  • Krysta Meekins

    Great article.  I’ve found my local twitter-world to be over-represented by the left, also.  I would be one of those young partisan types that is written off as biased.  Nonetheless, I continue to debate and participate actively on twitter.  Many of the local media movers and shakers follow the local political hashtags, sometime accept twitter questions live in debates, and twitter can be a first-source for breaking news.  (sometimes false info can be corrected before print/broadcast, if watched closely)  It can also be useful for monitoring activity of other Parties.

  • Aaron Bruce

    An interesting perspective I have never really considered and would generally agree with. I am sure I could go off on some extremely partisan left wing rant about why twitter is bias to the left, but for the most part I don’t think your argument is wrong.

    I think the last federal and Ontario elections have shown that Twitter really only engages the already converted.

  • katewerk

    All wrong. I have a unique perspective as a person who has been involved in two worlds with only a slice of overlap: the political/media world and my other world in dog sport. Here is the fundamental problem with social media, and I’ll use the two most cited examples:

    Nearly all of my friends are on Facebook. Facebook is “friends, family and female”. It’s for positive reinforcement. Facebook RECOILS from friction, and politics produces friction.  Thus, it’s a lousy platform for political outreach.

    Nearly none of my friends are on Twitter.  They simply aren’t online enough for it to be a useful utility. As a tool for rapid dissemination of breaking news for media, etc., works great. Low authority, but high speed.

    Facebook and Twitter are amplified within the political arena because they are the platforms of political junkies, politicians and reporters.

    But not for the general electorate.  They are not the message, they are the medium. And they aren’t the right medium for politics, as they tend to reach only those who are already fully engaged.

  • Stephen Taylor

    Your Facebook theory is anecdotal. For what it’s worth, here’s mine: — 6000+ likes plus huge impact in social reach beyond that.

    As for Twitter, I am describing the types of people on the platform that write about politics in Canada. Your friends may not be the type (do they look to government to solve their problems?)

    I wrote about the general electorate as well. Most can’t be bothered, yet those who solve their own problems aren’t likely to go to twitter to lean on the government.

    I know that you agree that the utility of twitter for vote getting is low (see my bit about the Ontario election — knock on doors instead)

  • Stephen Taylor

    Blogging and twitter are amplification media.

    I know your stance on Facebook. I agree for the most part except in special circumstances (like a well used page)

    This was about Twitter and the types of people that use it politically.

  • Anonymous

    Yes we already know it’s a right-wing catechism that the mainstream media is left-biased, so I can’t really fault you for trying to paint the new social media with the same brush. If you don’t like what you see, blame the eyeballs…

    For the left, solutions to grievances are rooted in state solutions. For
    the right, most look to themselves or families for answers.

    That’s from a needlepoint sampler over your bed, right?

    If dogma like that is truly one of your core beliefs, not much reality will penetrate your filter. Don’t blame the media, old or new, for that.