Wright Result
Web & Print Design - New Media Communication - Marketing Victoria BC Canada

It is a rare privilege for someone in my field, not an academic (in fact, without a post secondary degree), to receive an invitation as a guest speaker at a University of British Columbia Political Science Class. It is a testament to Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega that he actively sources differing perspectives, real world examples, to inform the Poli Sci 350A Students – I note, this term the class has also welcomed Dr. Janni Aragon from The University of Victoria plus MLA and BC Minister of Advanced Education Naomi Yamamoto. For myself, a big thank you to every student: you were warm in welcome, engaging, and had excellent questions.

UBC Poli Sci 350A

UBC Poli Sci 350A - Photo Credit Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega

This presentation (now Blog) is about Digital Media, Policy and Protest. It will likely raise more questions than provide answers, but hopefully will create some awareness of recent and active movements, and maybe identity trends as to how social media is affecting politics and policy currently, and in the future.

My experience is somewhat schizophrenic. I’m a communication consultant, working mainly for businesses and organizations, but active politically for established elected officials at the Federal and Municipal level. I have been both a Campaign Manager and Public Relations Director: former MP Keith Martin as a communications consultant,  Oak Bay Mayor and Federal Liberal Candidate Christopher Causton as communications manager during his bid as Federal Liberal Candidate for Victoria, Campaign Manager for Barry Hobbis in a Victoria City Council by-election – while at the same time either heading or advising public interest groups often not aligned, or opposed, to candidate and party policy aims. { ARESST.org : Scientific Victoria }

Failed Communication Cycles

Failed Communication Cycles

Working both sides has been interesting, to say the least, and provided insight into the dynamic relationship between the public to create attention around particular issues, vs the politicians and governments either trying to absorb, or counter, that pressure. It is the nature of democracy that the tension between governments with set policy aims, and interest groups, will always exist. What is rapidly changing is the way each communicate, the way WE Communicate, and the ability of one to influence the other. We are witnesses to something extraordinary. To some it is rather frightening as the traditional channels of political communication: creating, announcing and implementing policy, have radically altered.

Tim Berners-Lee, heralded as the founder of the world wide web, famously said “You affect the World by What you Browse” – I would argue you affect the world by what you share. The power of the individual has never been more paramount. The time it took humans to find a means to communicate over distance from smoke signals to the telephone has taken thousands of years. The time to move from the static web, to dynamic, to social media took less than twenty years, and we are just beginning to understand the implications. What does social media bring to policy discussions, even implementation?

Social Media in Canada

Social Media in Canada

It is always important to know where we are starting from: While the web has been moving from static to dynamic interfaces – or responsive platforms – since the late 1990s, it was really only in 2006 that the social web entered the lexicon. In that year Facebook moved from a mainly college interest to a public platform, with most of Facebook’s growth between 2008 and 2010. In 2011 the number of active Facebook users appears to have plateaued, yet those stats are worth noting. Around 18% of Canadians are active Twitter users, that growth curve still has potential. Also worth noting, 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

A 2011 Ipsos Reid survey of Canadian Internet and social media usage showed 75% of households had broadband – that’s beyond work access, that 62% had an active social media profile – more importantly, over 50% of the active voters in between the ages of 35 and 55+ were using social media. In BC, those numbers are an average 5% higher with 82% of households having broadband access, and 68% having an active social media profile. The demographic of active voters +45 years, using social media, is far higher in BC than elsewhere in Canada. Think about those numbers for a minute – BC has a population of 3 million, with 68% of those active social media users. Growth in active users is just about equal in both the older and younger demographics.

The most notable shift is not simply the social media platforms broaching a thresh-hold majority of the population, but possibly more important, the means of production – creating media. The cost and technical requirements to create engaging articles, videos, photographs, surveys and petitions has plummeted. An iPhone is a more powerful media production tool than most TV crews had even 10 years ago. Plus – it’s faster! In an incredibly short time frame, really only a few years, the means of creating and engaging an audience has moved from traditional, or legacy, media – to you and me. That has profound implications on government, who are used to controlling the message, and how policy is implemented.

A few examples which illustrate my observations.

Johnson Street Bridge Protest

Johnson Street Bridge Protest

In April 2009 City of Victoria Council received a report from city staff that the Johnson Street Bridge needed either a complete overhaul, or replacement. As per usual practice they held a quick debate at a late night council meeting, resolving to replace the bridge in a decision vote that actually came after midnight. There was little pre-warning to the public on this vote, or even that the bridge was on the agenda for replacement – media were barely covering the issue.

In July of that year, realizing that City Council had failed public interest a few local citizens banded together to raise awareness. With no budget, and very little time, we created a website and Twitter account. It touched a local meme – for better or worse – becoming a medium for local voters to express their concern over how the City was being run. That led to a counter-petition, one of the 1st to be successful in BC, and ultimately a referendum. While the protest was over the bridge decision, there was, and still is, an underlying theme around lack of public consultation.

The City of Victoria has recently passed a motion calling for Open Data and proactive release of information, but we wait to see if that will actually alter the process.

Anti-Proroguing Parliament Rally Victoria BC

Anti-Proroguing Parliament Rally Victoria BC

Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament In Early 2010 a University of Alberta lecturer created a single Facebook page protesting the Conservative Government’s decision to prorogue parliament. That quickly grew to 220 000 ‘likes’, and offshoots across the country with rallies and events, petitions and protests from Halifax to Victoria. While the activity did not alter the policy, it raised awareness of the issue – how many Canadians knew what prorogue meant beforehand? – and that movement has a continuing life online and off. The name has changed to Canadians advocating Political Participation, with chapters in, at last count 25 cities, most holding monthly meetings. That is really the first Canadian example of one person affecting the entire country at a political level using social media.

Stop HST NDP Campaign

Stop HST NDP Campaign

The BC HST Referendum  While I would argue the anti-HST movement barely touched the potential of social media, there is no doubt the referendum outcome was somewhat determined by individual online conversations as to signing for or against. Similar to the Johnson Street Bridge, the BC Government failed to inform or hold a public debate before implementing the new tax. This required those protesting to undergo a difficult counter-petition process calling for a referendum, then to further counter an expensive multi-media campaign by the BC Government in support of the HST. Surprising to many, the percentage of YES (Kill the new tax) votes vs NO, (Keep the HST), was far higher than expected, a 9% margin. Going back over Twitter and Facebook was interesting: comments for June and July were overwhelmingly anti-HST. A 70% to 30% sentiment. These were mostly conversations between individuals and small networks, not organizations or political party affiliations. Interesting was a consistent theme that many who voted against the tax actually felt it would benefit the BC economy, however they wished to express anger against the way it was implemented. The referendum was an unequivicable means to voice that message.

Occupy Victoria Rally October 15th 2011

Occupy Victoria Rally October 15th 2011

The Occupy Movement In July Vancouver based Adbusters created and promoted the Twitter hash-tag #OccupyWallStreet and even they are surprised and delighted at how it has formed. There is no doubt this is a social media movement, and quite different from the 1st three examples. There is no single issue or central organization – rather it is being created on the ground, through committees and meetings at each camp. It has longevity –  I note – City of Victoria Council passed a motion supporting the aims of Occupy, Orange County in California went further stating the camps are a form of speech. A reactionary approach by both politicians and government communications staff – either acceptance, or in some cases, removal of the camps.

The occupy movement leads into my conclusion – there has a been a great deal of hand wringing by politicians and pundits over a steady decline in voter turnout. Only 61.9% voted in May’s Federal election, just up from a record low of 59%. The recent provincial and territorial elections all saw record lows, Ontario was under 50% for the 1st time. Municipally, Vancouver and Victoria see average turnouts under 30% Yet, at the same time there are surveys, and examples, that people are politically engaged! A Canadian survey conducted in August 2011 by Vision Critical noted these stats: 57% aged 18 to 35, commonly defined as the ‘youth’ demographic, would engage with government and policy online – but don’t as the platforms to access are unavailable. Across all age groups that number was above 50%. With youth having the lowest voter turnout, and falling numbers across all demographics there is a conclusion that meaningful engagement on policy has to come in between election cycles. This survey, and others, negate the notion that Canadians are apathetic, rather the opposite. HST and Occupy clearly show disparate individuals can identity under a group dynamic. The difference between past protest movements, and what we are witnessing today,  how quickly, they form – largely through social media. The problem for politicians and government is the shift, where they generally speaking had the ability to not only control the message, but the message timeframe. Today, you and I have the same, some would argue, greater ability to shape events as the tools and mediums are now in our hands. Governments are in catch up mode.

Notes and Links

Media Convergence – the Tools: This is a decent place to start understanding the nature of transference of media tools from the corporate to the individual.

YouTube for Government: Google, Facebook and Twitter are starting to roll out free access platforms specifically designed for government to engage with citizens.

PoliTwitter – follow Canadian politicians on Twitter: Stats and more. A great resource

Follow Up Points, Questions, Discussion

Thank you to the students of #Poli350A (you can use that hashtag on Twitter to share the links and conversation!), and Dr. Pacheco, for all the questions following the presentation. I would welcome points, questions, insights – and as this is a public blog, anyone is invited to respond. My Twitter is @matvic, on Facebook, or Google Plus you can also email is that is a more comfortable medium. I do follow back! Please post your responses here, share your thoughts…

  • 1: Considering that Canadian Social Media usage has reached a majority of the population, are governments being left behind? Are there examples where a successful government initiated policy discussion using social media has resulted in consensus?
  • 2: Do politicians need active social media profiles? If they have them, are they using them well, or to potential. If not, does that turn off voters?
  • 3: Very general, and open question – how will social media affect policy discussions? Will it always be protest?

I look forward to your responses

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6 Comments

  1. October 31, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    Mat,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to travel all the way from Victoria to speak to my Public Policy students on the topic of media, social media, politics and political communications. A fascinating topic indeed, and my students loved it.

    Many thanks again.

    • October 31, 2011 at 11:27 PM

      Raul – it was a pleasure and a privilege!

  2. October 30, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    Andrew,

    My sincere apologies – I was going by memory of an at issue panel. The reference has been removed from the post.

  3. Andrew Coyne-Reply
    October 30, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    Your reference to me is ENTIRELY fictional. I never gave the protest a one week ‘timeline,” and therefore never backed down from it. Be as critical as you like about what I did say, but kindly do not make stuff up.

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