Social media can be powerful campaign tool, but Canadian politicians have much to learn

OTTAWA—From the moment we heard about her, the radical young woman from New York who dared issue a primary challenge to a long-sitting House Democrat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has illustrated that social media can be a powerful campaign tool—if used correctly.

Candidates for our upcoming federal election should be taking notes, because their social media game needs work.

Take Jagmeet Singh, for example. Over the Game of Thrones finale weekend, the leader for the NDP tweeted a photo of himself on the Iron Throne on May 19 with the text: “The election is coming. House New Democrat. Our words: Love & Courage.”

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, seated on the Iron Throne, flanked by his brother, Ontario NDP MPP Gurratan Singh. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

Tired and overly staged, the post screams of a grasp at relevance. (Photos of people on the Iron Throne were rampant across Twitter in the days leading up to the finale). Posts like these centre the politician, rather than shifting the focus to the most important thing—the voter. It’s no longer 2015. Nobody cares about your selfies.

Staged social media posts by politicians abound. For his birthday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s Instagram account posted a photo of him reading piles and piles of the exact same shiny birthday card with, one can assume, birthday wishes, with nary a coffee stain or errant pen mark in sight. How human!

CPC Leader Andrew Scheer posted this picture to Instagram on May 22, writing: ‘Thank you for all of the birthday wishes yesterday everyone.’ Photograph courtesy of Instagram

Seamus O’Regan embarrassed himself, and frankly offended some, when, as the newly minted Minister of Indigenous Services, on Feb. 14 he tweeted an official, very much staged photo of himself working on a private flight. The caption read like a pull quote from a sappy self-help book circa 1995: “Leaving Northern Saskatchewan, there are things that are clear to me. That the road to Reconciliation is one that we must walk together… .” Of course he was taken to task for the emptiness of his message, despite the stakes of his portfolio. And the tweet was promptly taken down “because it distracted from the work O’Regan was doing in the province,” according to his office.

Social media is not a distraction. Nor is it a place to simply be seen. Social media has become a key way to connect with voters, with Instagram in particular as the main platform to engage with younger people whose votes may be up for grabs.

The since-deleted photo tweeted out by then-newly minted Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan on Feb. 14. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

However, people are savvier than ever. They know the ins and outs of social media, and set the tone, language, cultural norms, and etiquette. They comment, participate, and engage because social media is not the one-way communications tool that is the tired old Ten Percenter. Young people, and frankly millennials who are approaching middle-age, are creating searing political memes, and they are sharing their most authentic selves, by baring their intimate thoughts, fears, and insecurities online—nothing is off limits. And they see through the bullshit. They can spot a fake meme a mile away, and they are not afraid to clapback.

Young people also turn to YouTube stars and social media influencers for important information (with the quality of that information secondary to the source), and, as we’ve learned from Ocasio-Cortez, it is very important and difficult to attain status as either.

On Twitter Ocasio-Cortez does not tweet generic lines from her election platform, as some are prone to do in Canada (Environment Minister Catherine McKenna painfully comes to mind). Instead, she breathes life into old debates, with pithy precision. For example, on Dec. 21, 2018, she tweeted: “For the wall’s $5.7 billion, every child in America could have access to Universal Pre-K. Yet when we propose the SAME $, we’re told that Universal Edu is a ‘fantasy’ & asked ‘how are you going to pay for it’ Education is an investment in society that yields returns. Walls are waste.”

She wields her social media accounts as tools to communicate policies and unleashes scathing critiques in ways that allow her to be authentic, no highly crafted and polled persona necessary.

Over on Instagram on Feb. 24, using their live video feature, she prepared dinner and explained her Green New Deal proposal, and engaged with viewers’ instant comments.

Imagine that: an unscripted politician who wings it on camera without speaking points to fall back on. Quelle horreur! They may actually sound… human. And sounding human allows any politician to connect with—and centre—the voter.

Erica Ifill and Amy Kishek are co-hosts of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.