I have seen the future of election campaigns, and it is Twitter.
It’s true. In 2011, a whole whack of provincial elections are taking place.
Federally there’s a good chance Canada will be heading to the polls in the spring.
Each one of those races will be different. But, in every one, the one thing you’ll be hearing about — and seeing the effects of, over and over — is Twitter.
Twitter — which permits you to post 140-character text messages called “tweets” on the Internet, gratis — is rather fashionable now. It now has 200 million users worldwide.
Politicians, and the reporters who write about politicians, love it.
Most of the time, Twitter is referred to as a social networky thing, like Facebook. Or, it’s defined as “micro-blogging.”
Neither definition seemed satisfactory to me, so I asked the politically-savvy readers of my website about it.
– “It’s the new telephone … an online party line.”
– “A mental pollution disseminator.”
– “The crack cocaine of social media.”
– “Quicker misinformation.”
In any campaign, start from the assumption we have a national memory of about seven minutes. Because Joe and Jane Frontporch are so busy in their everyday lives — ferrying kids to the rink, beating rush hour, working late, catching some precious shut-eye — they don’t have time to pay attention to the hundreds of thousands of words and images the media bombard them with every day.
One smart U.S. writer, David Shenk, coined a phrase for it: “Data smog.”
People are overwhelmed by data smog, so they tune most media out. For corporations, unions, governments and political parties, data smog is a big problem.
If they are to be successful selling something — a widget or candidate — they need to punch through that ubiquitous smog.
In a political campaign, Twitter helps do that. It’s free, instantaneous, and a way to dodge the mainstream media’s filter. It also allows voters to converse directly with political leaders, and vice-versa.
Do tweets capture votes? New Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi Twitter-towered over his opponents, with thousands of followers — and with many more thousands of acolytes on his Facebook and YouTube pages. Social media are widely seen as a big factor in Nenshi’s startling win.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford wasn’t particularly popular in Twitter — but his campaign team made highly effective (and unethical) use of it when it created a phony Twitter persona called “QueensQuayKaren.”
Ford’s staff used “Karen” to smear opponents (I worked on one of those campaigns), subtly trumpet Ford and play dirty tricks on the Toronto media. Despicable — but it probably helped Ford win.
Elsewhere, Twitter continues to dominate politics.
In last year’s British election, more than 600 candidates Twittered — and now 200 Members of Parliament are active tweeters.
In the U.S., Twitter has been useful in predicting outcomes, too: In the presidential race, the G.O.P.’s John McCain signed up nearly 5,000 Twitter followers. Barack Obama? He had 120,000.
In the coming year’s many political contests, Twitter will be the favoured technology to beat back the data smog, and capture votes. It’ll also be where some hot-tempered — or too-quick — politicos meet an untimely end.
Mostly, however, Twitter will be what a witty reader told me:
“Speaking in short bursts means context can disappear. In short, it’s perfect for politics.”
— Kinsella is a lawyer and will appear regularly on Sun News Network. He blogs at warrenkinsella.com