Municipal politics and campaigns in Canada are quite different from the US and EU, where party affiliation, and support, are the general rule. Here, especially in the Capital Regional District surrounding Victoria BC – 13 municipalities, covering a population of 350 000, with 91 elected positions for Mayors, councillors, school boards and regional directors – candidates must individually fund raise and create campaign teams, unless they group together under electoral associations, or achieve ‘undeclared’ support from established federal or provincial parties. Currently, only the NDP and Greens have any sort of local government campaign programs.
Monday October 17th, the Victoria Social Media Club held a panel discussion on Social Media and Municipal Campaigns, with local Victoria council candidates Lisa Helps (Twitter @Lisahelps) and Aaron Hall (Twitter @AaroninVictoria), Rob Wickson, running for council in Saanich (Twitter @RobWickson), Bernard von Schulman, campaign manager for Victoria Mayor candidate Paul Brown (Twitter @BCIconoclast) and Pamela Brown, completing an MA thesis exploring social media and citizen engagement. The panel was timely as local election campaigns are underway for a vote on November 19th.
How will Social Media Play in Local Elections?
As moderator, I divided the questions to the panel into two sections. The first around social media use in campaigns, the second part exploring what happens with those connections in between elections. As to the first, it was somewhat surprising that the candidates felt social media connections, and their current use of the platforms at the local level rated so highly – from a 1 to 10 scale the placement was 7 or 8. They all referenced raising topics that generated conversations and debate that not only informed them as to issues of concern, but which issues are highest in the mind of voters.
A second question – ‘Do candidates need to be on social media to add authenticity to their campaigns’ generated a different response. Pamela Brown correctly suggested ‘credibility’ might be a better term (agreed). While most were in agreement that candidates need to utilize all communication platforms to connect with voters, there was less affirmation as to the power to social media to actually affect election results. That was true also in a followup question as to turnout. Local elections in Canada have woefully low rates of voters – 21% in Saanich, 27% in Victoria. None of the panelists felt social media engagement would radically change those numbers, rather it would engage those already committed to vote.
The question on separating personal vs political social media profiles was fairly emphatic. None of the candidates felt it necessary to create different profiles, rather the opposite as it would require their existing contacts to connect with a new account. Noted, that most admitted they were relatively new to social media, still learning (as we all are).
Engagement Between Elections
As a Gov 2.0 and Open Data advocate, the questions around local political engagement in between elections was of interest. The question: ‘you have run a campaign where you can be open, do you anticipate any restrictions on what you can post or even ask on social media when you hold office?’ generated an interesting discussion. Candidates were unsure of rules, but felt open information should be the core. A follow up question of placing ‘trial balloons’ for policy created a different response. Rob Wickson was affirmative that elected officials should ‘get on with the job’, both Lisa Helps and Aaron Hall saw useful purposes of using social media to judge public interest and mood.
My conclusions: candidates active on social media locally in Victoria BC are discovering a new realm of connected individuals and communities. This is the apparent difference between the 2008 local election campaign and now. Many of the incumbent council candidates still do not have any web presence, let aside a Facebook or Twitter profile – yet they hope to be elected as the communication paradigm has changed. Victoria BC has an incredibly active social media community, likely one of the most connected per capita in Canada. That cannot be ignored, but will it actually factor into election results?
Thank you to Social Media Club Victoria BC for organizing the panel ‘Social Media, Citizen Engagement and Municipal Politics‘ – especially to Janis LaCouvee (Twitter @lacouvee) and Janni Aragon (Twitter @janniaragon) who were paramount in ensuring the event was lively, interactive and educational. It was an honour and delight to moderate
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