Is Social Media Really a Key Election Tool?

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.

9 Comments on “Is Social Media Really a Key Election Tool?”

  1. Pingback: What Do You Know About Social Media? | Social Media Blog

  2. Twittering all night and watching the poll count online, Social media is the communication tool between the public and any organization and business would benefit to use these tools ongoing. Public opinion can easily and instantly be spread and gathered and vice versa with updates. @torontovotes however noticeably blocked further updates during the poll counts which was disappointing considering they were the ones counting via their website. Using #voteto and ‘toronto election’ word search was more useful last night.

    1. io,

      The question is how do you make social media resonate during an election in a way that engages and informs voters? What are the techniques, tricks and tools that candidates should be using to get their message out in an interesting and informative way?


  3. I think the potential is there for social media to influence the outcome of an election, but the electorate needs to be engaged enough to make that possible.

    Each user controls what appears in their news feed, and for the majority of Twitter users, political tweets are not something they are interested in being bombarded with on a daily basis.

    Twitter is used very differently by those of us who work in PR, media, social media, marketing, etc. We seek out such information and want to be the first ones to provide it. To us, following politicians is often part of the jobs we do, or something we have a keen interest in. But, we are often broadcasting information to a network of people like us – I’m not sure the messages get too far beyond the early adopter bubble.

    1. Sabrina,

      I think that is where social media fell flat on its face when it came to Toronto’s mayoralty campaign. Both of the leading candidates used social media but they weren’t innovative, creative or interesting in how they applied it.

      Thanks for the comment.


  4. I definitely agree Mark.

    It will be interesting to see if that obstacle can be overcome in the lead up to next year’s provincial election.

  5. To me the biggest downfall of the mayoral candidates use of social media was that they used as a one-way communication device. It was like the electronic version of dropping a pamphlet in your (snail)mail box. They NEVER responded to people’s questions, save for RT’ing some positive support. Keeping with the metaphor, just as they should have been knocking on doors, asking people what concerns or issues they have, they should’ve been responding to at least some of the tweets and to some of the comments left on their FB wall.

  6. Taking the mayoral race aside, it would be interesting to see which councillors’ campaigns implemented effective social media strategies. I live in Ward 13, where there’s a fairly active twitter community, but there was little to no online campaign. I didn’t find the winning candidate on twitter until after polls had closed. Similarly when I was volunteering on Gerard Kennedy’s campaign we found door-to-door canvassing to be more effective than status updates.

    My guess is that there are constituencies where digital strategy matters more, and that these are clustered in the downtown core. No data on that, but would love to see some.

    1. You’re right that engagement is what helps make social media work, and that simply tweeting or updating is only going halfway.


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