In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama leveraged social media to prevail over John McCain. In many respects, Obama’s use of services such as Facebook and Twitter legitimized social media and established it as a valuable tool within the political process.
Two years after the fact, a question that should be asked is whether social media as a key part of election campaigns has been over-rated.
Did Obama manage to catch lightning in a bottle at a time when people were looking for change, and social media was just emerging as new and different way to communicate and engage voters?
Without suggesting that social media shouldn’t be an important political tool, its use during elections needs to be explored given what happened during Toronto’s mayoralty election in which social media, frankly, was less than inspiring.
None of candidates effectively used social media. While they dutifully created YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts, it was like they were going through the motions. There was little creativity or engaging content, and nothing to suggest social media was the new hot election weapon.
As it turned out, voter turn out was strong, which has more to do with the hotly-contested mayoralty race, which had two leading candidates, Rob Ford and George Smitherman, with starkly different views of the Toronto’s future.
The lack of social media sizzle in Toronto, Canada’s largest city and the home to many of its digital companies, was a marked contrast to the recent mayoralty election in Calgary in which Naheed Nenshi came from behind to win defeat two two leading candidates.
For Nenshi, social media is credited as playing a key role. Mount Royal University professor Ron Strand provides a list of reasons why social media worked for Nenshi, including the fact his opponents had little enthusiasm for social media.
So how effective is social media within elections? Is it a magic elixir and a game-changer, or a good but not spectacular part of a political arsenal.