Last Friday afternoon Councillor Don Iveson and I sat down in the radio booth at CBC Edmonton to discuss social media, citizen engagement, and politics with Radio Active guest host Rod Kurtz. During the interview, we discussed the role that social media has played in municipal politics and could play in the October 2010 elections.
There is little doubt that Councillor Iveson is the most social media savvy politician in Edmonton. Since his election in 2007, he has done a pretty good job at using social media as both an engagement and accountability tool by using his blog to provide the kind of long-form discussion and explanations about the positions and decisions he has made as a Councillor. His list of posts on the proposed downtown arena and the phased closure of the City Centre Airport are two examples of transparency that his Councillor colleagues should strive towards.
Social media tools are great to engage and connect with people and will play a larger role in the October elections, but candidates standing in the October municipal elections should be aware of some of the downsides. Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe shared some common sense advice during an online strategy session with Organizing for America:
“there is no substitute, even in the digital age, to talking to a human being.”
Twitter does not replace door-knocking.
Candidates standing for election this fall should remember this advice. However many “Likes” your Facebook Page has or “followers” you have on Twitter, it does not replace door-knocking and pressing the flesh. Social media is an important additional tool to complement traditional campaigning, but it does not replace actually connecting citizens in-person.
Do not get trapped in the “echo chamber.”
It is my experience that while I have met a lot of passionate and engaged citizens though social media like Twitter, there is also the danger of being caught in what is most easily described as an “echo chamber.” For example, following the hashtag #ecca might easily lead someone to believe that the phased closure of the City Centre Airport is the only issue that Edmontonians will base their votes on in the next election. In reality, when you hit the doors you will be quickly reminded that the vast majority of Edmontonians are not single-issue voters and that they will base their vote on a wide-variety of issues. Twitter attracts many different types of people, including people who are focused (or obsessed) on broadcasting their single-issue campaigns across the internet.
Like relationship building, it takes time.
I have become aware of a number of “consultants” that, like the snake oil salesmen of the old West, are peddling their knowledge of social media for large sums of money. If you are a candidate standing for office in the October elections, my social media advice to you is to avoid the high-cost seminars and learn it yourself (or find someone you know who uses it). Social media is best learned by individuals first hand and, like relationship building, it takes time and effort.
Ask for help.
If you are a candidate trying your hand at Twitter and would like some help or need to ask a question, do not hire a consultant, post a tweet and ask people who already use Twitter how it works. You will more than likely discover a online crowd of people who are eager to engage with you (include the hashtag #yegvote or #yegcc in your tweet to get the attention of people who are already following the 2010 municipal election in Edmonton). Also make sure to check out the list of Council and School Board candidates on Twitter care of @YEGpolitics.
For more coverage of how citizens and candidates are using social media to engage and spark debates, visit EdmontonPolitics.com. Myself and the good citizen contributors of that website are going to be kicking things into high gear over the next few months to provide some on the ground coverage of the October municipal elections.
(cross-posted at EdmontonPolitics.com)