09/10/2011 06:00 EDT | Updated 11/10/2011 05:12 EST

What's right and what's wrong on social media during an election

TORONTO - Ontario's political parties are relying heavily on social media during this election. Their leaders are all active tweeters and so are many other candidates.

Social media can lead to campaign payoffs, though unfiltered communication brings with it huge risks, experts say. Here's a look some hits and misses:


Candidness: Social media is the perfect place for politicians to showcase their personality and try to endear voters to their human side.

"I think people like it," said University of Guelph assistant political science professor Tamara Small. "There's a growing movement toward personalization of politicians. People want to be seen as regular folk."

She said politicians have to dance a delicate line when straying from their political message on social media. It is still work for them and there is so much potential for flippant remarks to be taken the wrong way.

Example: "Got back on the bus after talking w the Greyhound team and PC candidates, discovered Miller had been on my ipad playing Angry Birds" — Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak tweets about his three-year-old daughter.

Treating social media like a community: Just like physical places where people gather there is a sense of community and a unique culture online, digital public affairs strategist Mark Blevis said.

Liberal Deb Matthews said she came to Twitter reluctantly at first, but now would feel as though her "right arm had been cut off" if she had to go without.

"I reach for Twitter to see what news stories people are talking about," she said. "I use it to connect with stakeholders, to hear from people across the province and even beyond on a range of health issues. I find out what's happening in London (her riding) through Twitter. For me, Twitter has really become an important part of my day."

Example: "Meeting with Mayor Rob Ford in less than 1 hour. Any suggested topics to discuss? #ONDP #onpoli" — NDP Leader Andrea Horwath uses Twitter to crowdsource talking points for a meeting with Toronto's mayor, using hashtags to get the attention of not just people who follow her, but anyone who monitors Ontario politics discussion on Twitter.

Listening: Part of the power of social media is being able to connect not only with friends, but also with people you may never otherwise be able to meet. Anyone can send the leaders a message on Twitter, where they are all active, whether it is praise or criticism.

"For the parties and the candidates I think what this means is they have a much greater potential than ever before to know what voters might like or what they might want," said Mary Francoli, an assistant communications professor at Carleton University.

Example: "@sam_broadhead @DawnGosney Not fair for both of you to attack at once:) Stay tuned for platform re postsec. Have a great year at school!" — Premier Dalton McGuinty, who uses Twitter to chat with supporters and critics, responding to complaints about the way student loans are calculated.


Talking at people instead of with them: To illustrate this mistake, Blevis likens it to a real-life social situation such as a party. It would be off-putting if instead of shaking hands and making small talk when meeting someone new, a party-goer walked up to a stranger and said, "Read this media release," Blevis said.

The Tories have a team to monitor social media during the campaign and "actively engage" when people are discussing Conservative issues, said the party's director of social media Joseph Lavoie.

"This ensures that we're not using social media just to push our press releases or talking points," he said. "Quite frankly, most people don't care about that."

Example: Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has been guilty of this social media faux pas of late. A search of his recent Twitter posts finds little to no interaction with members of the public and many highly partisan messages such as: "Best way to tell if the #taxman Dalton McGuinty plans to raise taxes? When he is telling you he won't. #changebook gives families relief"

Failing to bridge the online-real world gap: Social media experts say the best way to use those tools in political campaigns is to mobilize your base of supporters. If a politican has thousands of fans on Facebook, then surely some of them could be enticed to attend a rally or other campaign event, suggested Small.

"This is one of the things I'm quite surprised that I don't see as much on Twitter," she said.

"I'm always a bit surprised that they don't use it as a sort of event calendar...'I'm going to be at so-and-so in two days. You should come.'"

Some politicians will send out messages saying they had a great time at an event that just finished.

"Useless," said Small.

She also said parties and candidates could use social media better to encourage their base to donate their time or money to their campaigns.

Example: "Just released our agricultural platform in Kingsville. Time for change that works for rural Ontario. #ONDP #onpoli #VoteOn" — NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. She sometimes promotes events on Twitter, but often gives a window of a few hours, which Small suggested was not enough for people to arrange to attend.

Throwing message control out the window: Politicians and public figures were no strangers to controversy before the Internet and social media came along, but the networks' immediacy and ability to quickly spread messages make them dangerous to navigate.

But skirting scandals is relatively easy, said Liberal Deb Matthews. "I do try to think before I tweet," she said.

"If I'm a little worried that it might not be something I'd be happy about tweeting tomorrow then I just pause, and if I pause that tells me you might not want to do it."

Example: "Ford, Hudak and Harper - the trifecta of Republican-style, right-wing ignorance and bigotry" — Liberal Glen Murray came under fire and was forced to apologize for posting to his Twitter feed this comment from another user.