Beedie prof. Michael Parent ponders low social media usage in municipal politics

Oct 26, 2011

From the Richmond Review

Few candidates for city council in Richmond (and Metro Vancouver more generally) have taken to social media despite it being a great way to engage voters, according to one expert.

“What surprises me more (than candidates’ lack of use) is that they haven’t realized the power of being able to tap into communities through social media,” said Michael Parent, a business professor at Simon Fraser University.

Just seven of 19 candidates for city council have accounts on Twitter—an online social networking service allowing users to send and read short posts. Five have tweeted less than 50 times.

Many have accounts on Facebook—a social utility connecting people via profiles—but just one, Cynthia Chen, has a current, publicly accessible Facebook page.

Two political organizations have Facebook pages, and while Richmond First posts regular updates, the Richmond Citizens Association’s page hasn’t been updated since 2008.

Parent, who co-authored a study on the participation of businesses in social media, said sites like Twitter and Facebook give candidates a place to get their message out to many people who in turn propagate that message.

“The initial content that you push out is the seed that is used to create all these generative conversations on the part of the community, so it’s a great way for politicians to get their core message out,” he said.

Social media is also a place where candidates can “humanize” themselves and test their ideas with the public, said Parent.

“It’s a good litmus test for their opinions or their positions because the community will react quickly—either positively or negatively—to any message that goes out.”

In his research, Parent found businesses must be willing to cede control, as unwanted conversations could take place. But since everyone has an equal voice, social media has a “democratizing effect.”

“To a politician, this would be both exhilarating as well as frightening. Exhilarating because you’re getting one of the purest forms of democracy possible, frightening because if it goes wrong, it goes wrong in a very bad way and very quickly and very visibly.”

One politician who has used Twitter effectively is  Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Parent said. He’s used the website to connect with people since 2008—not to send out political messages, but to engage in a dialogue with people that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

Eric Yung, a candidate for school board, maintains  Richmond First’s social media platforms, which he said are great places to broadcast timely information and engage youth.

“They’re all on their cellphones, they’ve all got a Twitter account, they’ve all got Facebook, they’re all checking them, and the hundred characters out to tell them about something on Twitter gets through to them much more than any press release.”

Linda McPhail is the most prolific tweeter among Richmond’s council candidates,  with 120 messages as of yesterday, but just 108 followers who read them.

McPhail, who also uses Facebook regularly, got hooked on Twitter earlier this year after attending a workshop on the website.

“It’s a way of getting instant updates and keeping in touch,” she said. “But I’m aware it’s just a tool and you have to be careful.”

Noting the dismal voter turnout in the last civic election—22.1 per cent—McPhail hopes social media will help draw younger voters to the polls.

Candidate Linda Barnes, however, hasn’t taken to social media. The four-term councillor said she doesn’t have the time to learn about it nor keep up with online conversations.

“I don’t like to start something just for the sake of a campaign and abandon it,” she said. “I just really feel if you’re going to connect with people in social media it’s incumbent upon you to keep up with those connections.”

Barnes said she sees the value of social media but given her lack of familiarity with the technology, she prefers to connect with voters in “relationship based” ways.

Candidates and social media

•Incumbent mayoral candidate  Malcolm Brodie joined Twitter in June. He has since tweeted 31 times and has 198 followers. In Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson joined Twitter in 2008. He has tweeted 1,069 times and has 17,809 followers.

•Among Richmond candidates,  Alexa Loo has the most Twitter followers, 233, but has tweeted just eight times in four years.

•Richmond First Voters Society is the most active local political body in social media, with regular updates posted on  Twitter and Facebook.

By Matthew Hoekstra – Richmond Review

Click here to read the complete article on the Richmond Review website.

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