Harper and social media: an open question

This evening I read listlessly from a library copy of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by historian Daniel Walker Howe. It’s part of the multi-volume Oxford History of the United States, and covers a relatively unloved part of that country’s history. It begins at the end of the War of 1812 and ends before the long prelude to the Civil War. But Howe depicts that period as the opposite of a dry spell between bursts of action. Technological breakthroughs in communications and transportation, especially the telegraph and the steam locomotive, changed the nature of social intercourse in a still largely empty country. Howe says the advent of fast transport and faster broadcasting of ideas was at least equal in its social impact to the arrival of the internet 150 years later. As one example among many, he argues that Southern slaveholders didn’t need to care what anyone else thought of their nasty business in 1815, but that that had started to change for good 33 years later.

I’m writing a book about Stephen Harper and it occurs to me that when he was elected in 2006, there was (for most Canadians not enrolled in higher education) no Facebook, no Twitter, and Youtube was barely six months old. I’ll tell you right now I don’t see the social-media revolution as having had a deciding impact on Canadian electoral politics or government. But I’ve got a hunch it’s had some impact.

I invite your observations and theories in the comment section below. I don’t have a leading question because I have no idea what I’m looking for, but: have technological changes had any influence on Canadian politics since 2006? Feel free to DM me on Twitter or email me if you have thoughts you want to share more quietly. As always, be nice to one another in the comments, please.




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Harper and social media: an open question

  1. For me, as a politically-aware 36-year-old Computer Science grad and computer geek since childhood: I hear about *everything* first on Twitter now. It’s the rapid response that six years ago email had become, and 12 years ago… didn’t exist?

    Additionally, being accessible online completely changes my opinion of politicians. Tony Clement and I shared several good conversations on Twitter on various topics a couple years back, leading me to feel more forgiving toward him (even as I fought that urge), but then I was (I presume) too angry about the census and was blocked, which again significantly coloured my opinion.

    Being able to engage and see the rapid response of a pol (and/or staffer) has a big impact on how I think about their opinions. Mayor Ford complains about something on the radio, poli-geeks discuss immediately on Twitter, transit chief posts a blog explaining the issue, all within 24 hours…

    I have no idea if this is helpful. But I can’t imagine thinking about politics without the rapid response journalism, fact-checking, and even sadly partisan ranting that we see today.

  2. I think that social media, and Twitter specifically, have set the tone for the future of politcal reporting. Twitter has taken the normal news cycle, cut out all the fat, and brought it to light speed. You can get the news directly from a source, video and quotes, it’s retweeted by the right people, and in 5 minutes everyone knows what is going on. In an hour or two, the first wave of analysis goes up, the good stuff gets passed around, the bad stuff is called out and corrected. As the day goes on, Twitter seems to distribute and collect the analysis of certain events that would normally take weeks. Once a day or two has passed, it’s just old news. Maybe a magazine or newspaper does a feature a few days later, but most things are over now in 72 hours.

    For politics, there is the benefit of having so many more eyes on the beat, and everyone being able to talk and read each other with ease. You can have a Kady O’Malley earn a living reporting on the minutiae of the political process, something impossible to do with a daily newspaper. You can have an Andrew Coyne or a Paul Wells or a Chantal Hebert to give context to breaking news immediately, and the analysis process which would have normally waited until the publication of newspapers or magazines is initiated online and distributed rapidly.

    The flip side to this is that not everything sticks. It is just overloaded at times. Little things get blown up into massive scandals, and then it’s over in a day. Things that should be big are sometimes lost in the democratic mess of information. Twitter does not differentiate between stupid cat videos and Omnibus bills or Auditor General reports. Because most people combine their political news feeds with their regular ones, you don’t get the editorial effect of being told by someone that something is a story.

    • “Maybe a magazine or newspaper does a feature a few days later, but most things are over now in 72 hours”

      That is surely a down side? And presumably no one is actually paying for all that lovely analysis form Coyne,Wells, Hebert and company? That can’t be good for business long term?
      Context to me anyway starts to become meaningless when it arrives on the hour, every hour, and is gone two days later as if it were a mirage.

  3. I’m not sure about time frames[ mostly because i continue to be waaaaaaay behind the info technology revolution. Twitter is still a foreign country to me] But it strikes me that Harper has a case for being the most seriously scutinized PM we have yet had. This despite the fact that he’s better at avoiding accountability than most too.
    Seriously i still get Cons asking whether i held this or that view when say Chretien was in power. I was critical to a degree[ i felt he wasn't active enough] but when i think about it the opportunity to scrutinize JC’s moves/blunders etc was for me a non techy pretty much limited to what Simpson or L.Martin had to say about him in the GM everyday.[ naturally i dismissed everything messrs Coyne, Wells and Black had to say about him in the post. Steyn's stuff went of course straight into the kitty litter or blue bin]
    My point is i suppose that the new technology for me at least has widened my horizons considerably. Of course that might have to do with maturing in every sense of the word, as much as it is down to better access to contrary fact and opinion? I know the conventional view is that the internet has merely caused many partisans to simply fall prey to confirmation bias…not me for some reason. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that my search is much more self directed than before…and easier and more convenient of course. Never under estimate easier for human beings.
    Edit: Hmmm, i even wonder if this much easier access to archival material is helping to off set the fact that there seems to have been a alarming drop off in the reading of serious books about serious people as well? It is remarkable what is available at the click of a mouse that previously would have meant some serious researching at the local library/book store. Whether people are still seriously thinking about serious things, or even have the time to, is another question altogether.

    • Without trying to be cute, if I had more time I would try to organize my thoughts and write something close to what kcm2 has here. Suffice it to say that his broad strokes and mine are the same.

      Keeping up with twitter on my down time seems exhausting. My attempts make me think that there’s a lot of additional content for those looking for inside baseball material. But I have no idea if that’s true. An RSS feed and Facebook are as far as I get. There’s a lot of uninformed crap on Facebook. My guess is that people are exposed to way more political messages than they would have been in the past as a result of social media, and have evolved way better filtering skills as a result.

      The notion that Harper’s predecessors dealt with a less aware public is fascinating. It’s not like Chretien was universally loved, after all.

      • My sole concession to twitter is to choose one or two people’s feed to read [ not religiously] I find an invaluable amount of interesting stuff that way, with out having to join in with all the fun – and the snarkiness of participating. My hunch is that twitter is a vanity showcase for many anyway.[ and i'm not talking about the ordinary citizens either] I have no intention of joining them.
        I guess there are good independent feeds to follow too, like Canpolitcs[ ??] I haven’t the time to research them all. And i wouldn’t know where to start either.

      • I should add that it could be argued that while Harper is much more under the social media eye than JC, and certainly BM and PET, changes to the media business model [ fancy way of saying they're broke] means there is far less good old fashioned investigative journalism around, that and everybody, public too, has the attention span of a gnat these days. Harper has benefited hugely from this. Remember that both Simpson and Martin broke and stuck with big stories on Chretien that left their mark on him.
        To my very limited knowledge there have been just two decent attempts to stick with tough stories in SH’s time…one of them is the team at OC that is tracking down the robo call stuff…the other is our own PW and his heroic efforts over Rights and Democacy.
        Is it a matter of win on the swings but lose on the roundabouts?

        • “…everybody… has the attention span of a gnat these days.”

          And Twitter seems to be a leading cause (when viewed from the outside). From the beginning it seemed to me that Twitter was largely for twits, and I haven’t seen much to convince me otherwise. So I’ve never gotten an account.

          I think it has played a significant role in the way politics are viewed; but I’m not at all convinced it is a change for the better.

          • It’s a good source for insider baseball stuff and just interesting to see what the big guys like Wells and Coyne et al., really think, but don’t always say so in print. I just take a look at Wells’ feed from time to time. But you’re right, i would never play either. I know some of the morons who inhabit the place. But then again someone like Wells routinely blocks those guys out.
            But most of it is hardly better than reading a gossip column.

  4. ‘Have technological changes had any influence on Canadian politics since 2006?’

    Not that I’ve noticed. Unfortunately.

    It’s having an enormous effect on society….for example, it’s slowly wiping out our manufacturing sector, which will shortly be an economic disaster….but politicians are only noticing the social aspects of it, and then only to banter with or attack others…..journos, Opposition, even voters…..and to promote themselves.

    Just more campaigning, really. LIke the photo of Harper having breakfast.

    A picture’s worth a thousand words, they say….however….a picture took out Stanfield, so that’s not new.

    Anyway, everything else seems to be invisible to them. No one ever promoted Blackberry, except Obama, and no one seems to be noticing Hadfield in the ISS, and he’s drawn a crowd….including Shatner, Spock and so on.

    Cripes, a Canadian about to command a space station….and we get a cat and corn flakes.

  5. Most of the time the twitter discourse is for political junkies/newsies who are interested in inside baseball but occasionally an issue pops up that involves more widespread interest from the public in a medium that is more accessible for them to demonstrate this interest. For example, but for social media, I’m not sure the public outcry over the original internet surveillance bill would have been pronounced. It was one of the few times the Harper government has backed down from opposition over a proposed measure.

    • Ah, but without social media, would the internet surveillance bill ever been written in the first place?

      • BAZINGA!

  6. “Howe says the advent of fast transport and faster broadcasting of ideas
    was at least equal in its social impact to the arrival of the internet
    150 years later. As one example among many, he argues that Southern
    slaveholders didn’t need to care what anyone else thought of their nasty
    business in 1815, but that that had started to change for good 33 years
    later.”

    It is of course possible to argue the down side of having to worry what everyone else has to think about what you’re up to.
    I’m fascinated by the period of the repatriation of the constitution and all the ins and outs of the politics that enabled to come about. I really have to wonder if the gold fish bowl analogy of modern politics isn’t approaching the level that would make this kind of event in Canadian politics a kind of sepia toned exercise in nostalgia. I can’t imagine the constitution ever being opened again. Harper seems to thinks so too, judging by his approach to senate reform.

    • It was meant to not be opened again, considering the amendment formula.

      • They certainly made it difficult by design. Not a bad thing considering Meech.

  7. In terms of the way citizens consume political news I think kcm2 says it best and I have nothing major to add. In terms of actual politics I suspect the biggest effect might be in organizing campaigns, both collecting donations and communicating from the top level to the ground level (then again I am thinking mainly of Barack Obama in the US, an approach which may not have hit Canada just yet).

  8. I think it has, in a two-pronged way. The first is the massive technological infrastructure that has enabled the Conservatives to microtarget constituencies in places that would have been considered safe Liberal seats, and slowly grow them – the stuff of “The Victory Lab” and Susan Delacourt’s new book. Some people consider this to be a really negative development in politics but it’s also a form of listening. Through technology, Harper has figured out how to communicate with large numbers of individuals across the country, rather than treating them as geographic blocs.

    The second is the way that social media itself has proven to be an impressive distraction from where the actual persuasion is happening in the country. If I recall correctly, you have reported yourself on the glee of the Conservative War Room when the Twitterati would get overly fixated on something that most people wouldn’t see or hear about, while they got to the business of winning an election.

    It also functions as a distraction for those who, in another age, may have been motivated to do something to actually create change. It’s very easy for people to be outraged on Twitter or Facebook and believe they are contributing, when they aren’t. Social change still happens on the door step and in the physical world, so keeping your enemies in a virtual space is a win.

    I’m not too sure what conclusions can be drawn from this that aren’t obvious, but I think it’s clear that there is an effect. Perhaps looking at how Harper approaches the political landscape would be an interesting take? Assuming I’m right, he sees a country of individuals that either can or can’t be persuaded to see his way of doing things, whereas (it seems) the Liberals still see regional voting blocs that were probably treated as such over the last 60 years because the easiest way to get to them was through large, broadcast media markets, rather than because those blocs were actually reflective of monolithic beliefs.

    • Your last para is really good. You’ve got something there. And it might explain why someone who is coms savvy like JT is not using the time honoured liberal messaging template. He’s not playing the regional block game.[ the LPC is slowly orientating itself this way]

      The takeaway i get from your post is that Harper is probably very much in the Thatcher camp ie., there is no society, only people with self interest to be appealed to or demagogued if necessary. This fits with a view i hold, that Harper isn’t a politcal strategy genius, much less a communications genius like PET was, but he may be our first political marketing genius? [ there's a dead word eh. Used to be you had to invent a number or explain why light bends to earn the tag genius.]
      It is a fascinating subject, this citzens vs consumers divide and one that Delacourt’s new book covers, so i’m told. Is it out yet?

      • February, I think.

    • The Harper team is a technology wimp compared to what Obama’s team has done in the last two elections to identify, target, and mobilize voters. Obama’s team moved the needle in the composition of the electorate. They changed the demography of the people showing up at the polls via personalized voter profiling.

      • Agreed, but he does a great job without the kind of large commercial data sets that aren’t allowed under Canadian privacy laws.

  9. Given what Obama has managed with modern communications (similar to Kennedy’s mastery of television back in the day) the first political leader in this country who really uses twitter, facebook, the internet etc. to connect directly with the modern voter, will be impossible to deal with in the traditional manner.
    Of course I’m thinking of Trudeau when I say this. I’m curious to see what he’ll do with it should he win the Liberal leadership. He seems a natural it regards to using modern commuication techniques to connect with broad and diverse groups.
    I don’t think the NDP or the Conservatives on the other hand have really used this to the extent it can be used. They’ve more or less just been playing around up to now. If I were advising them I’d tell them to step it up immediately, or risk losing the next election.

    • I don’t think you’re right about the NDP not being on the ball with regard to the new media – they practically own the young activist [vote?] out there.
      JT is an interesting case. He is making the Obama argument that politics has changed, that people are not bound any longer to one particular party or issue; they swing issue by issue. It is an interesting pov and one that will become increasingly important as the boomers [us:)] become increasingly gaga.
      What concerns me about him[ and i'm officially a supporter] is the degree to which he isn’t communicating any new ideas – at least not right now. It’s a it of a worry. Is he hiding in the weeds a bit[ my hope] or is he simply not generating any new ideas? He is certainly not revealing any at the debates so far – but that seems to be a deliberate strategy. Can’t say i like it. But he is still more than 2 years out from an election. Hopefully he is just quietly seeding the ground.

  10. before Twitter, there were blogs. Before those, websites. Before that, message boards. I’ve been involved in politics and communications long enough to note that the names haven’t changed, and those that engage on these channels are the ones who, pre net, would have been arguing over a pint in the pub.
    But it’s done nothing to engage the not-already-interested. Sure, Tony Clement tweets, but have you ever tried to get his office to answer an email or a phone call? Twitter, for some, has replaced, not added to, constituent dialogue. And the speed means that many times, the whirlwing has already blown over before anyone outside of the twitterati has noticed. Instant scandal, massive outrage, quick resolution and hey, look…it’s 4:45 p.m. and nobody’s left on Twitter…
    And way too much of what passes for political commentary ends up as “Hey! I’m at the convention and they’re charging $8 for a cookie #fail”.
    maybe it’s engaging more youth, but they’re not stupid, and if all they see on Twitter is pictures of chinchillas and Pat Martin swearing, what’s to keep them there?

    • The golden rule remains golden eh! Garbage in garbage out. Only now its a whole lot more gargage a whole lot quicker. Still, the overall networking effect of twitter has been positive no? Now you can get almost our whole chattering class on the equivalent of a conference call, and get almost instant feedback and editing too. Unfortunately you can’t necessarily out source good analysis. That presumably is still best left in the hands of an experienced battle scarred professional.
      I sometimes liken twitter to a flash mob of amateur plumbers all arguing…’no no you turn the bloody wrench this way i tell you…ok the thingy is off now, so what do we do?’…[dead air]…’call a plumber’!… some one pipes up.

  11. Here in BC we ousted a lousy premier long before the end of his term via ‘social’ media, the rest of Canada would do well to follow our lead and do the same to your lousy pm.

  12. I think the biggest thing that technology has changed re: politics in Canada is that the “gate-keepers” don’t hold nearly the influence they once did. It used to be that a handful of newspaper editors decided what was “news”, and that’s what people were lead to believe was important. Today, everything that happens is published on the internet, and consumers decide what’s important with the help of Twitter/Facebook/blogs/etc.

    That said, there’s also a whole lot more garbage being “published” from hyper partisans, special interest groups, and the just plain ignorant. On the bright side though, the technology makes it easier to point out the flaws in logic and the bald faced lies, and to get the word out.

    I think the perfect example of what I’m talking about was the so-called “Wafer-gate” story. Twenty years ago it would have been published, and re-printed all over the country, and people would have accepted it as gospel, no matter how vehemently the PM denied it, because the “gate-keepers” would have decided it’s truthiness. Today, there’s multiple camera views of the “incident”, the story can be traced easily to a source, and the PMO’s talking points were distributed within minutes of the story hitting the internet. The result was the original publisher and editor were fired, and the other papers that had published the original story were forced to print their retractions with big headlines, as opposed to hiding it at the bottom of page 12.

  13. In the United States, the ability to talk amongst your social network/media deluded Conservatives (Fox News, talk radio, tea party, right wing think tanks) into thinking that they had Obama beat.

    In Canada, I think the same thing happened in reverse. The liberal/progressive central Canadian media elite became convinced by listening to themselves on social media, that Ignatieff was a great candidate, and was running a good campaign.

    With social media, it is really easy to filter out the ideas and opinions of the other side, and one can fall prey to groupthink.

    The thing about Big Data is that one really has to look at all the data, without preconceived prejudices, and be really careful about what one is filtering out of one’s media stream.

    Both Harper and even moreso Obama were far more concerned with Big Data. Their social network/media efforts served to feed their Big Data “machines”.

  14. Paul, how could one email you, if so inclined?

    • inklesswells@gmail.com

      That should still work. But I’ve never used it cuz he can be kinda grouchy at times.:)

      • Both parts of kcm2′s answer are correct. Sorry to be slow replying.

        • Hah…I knew I was safer out here among the regulars and the trolls… Coward that I am.

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