08/27/2015 12:19 EDT | Updated 08/27/2016 01:12 EDT

Digital campaign taking politics right into the palm of people's hands

OTTAWA — While local candidates were out Thursday knocking on one door at a time, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was inside, knocking on thousands all at once.

Mulcair held a virtual 'town hall' meeting on Facebook — the first of the main federal leaders to do so during the campaign — where he fielded questions live online from any users willing to pose them.

Social media has always been about engaging voters. But this time, unlike in 2011, the NDP will know a lot more about the people behind those digital doors.

Every social media user who interacts with a campaign — there are 20 million Canadians on Facebook — brings with them a treasure trove of information on their "likes," habits and interests.

That data, along with applications to parse it, are allowing campaigns to target voters far more directly than in the past. As a result, social media is no longer just another front in the campaign war. Now, it's part of the arsenal.

"The tools from 2011 have evolved, the offerings from suppliers have evolved, the industry is advancing," said Brad Lavigne, a senior adviser with the NDP campaign.

"The NDP are seizing the opportunities that these new tools provide in engaging Canadians."

Radio brought politicians into the kitchen; television brought them to the living room. Mobile technology is putting campaigns into the palms of Canadians — and the NDP has been careful to focus first on mobile-friendly web tools first, traditional computer screens second.

Of course, traditional TV ads don't translate well on the small screen, so parties are also counting on people doing that advertising for them. Each party uses photos and videos designed to be shared online — and tracked. The Liberals also create Facebook events to highlight their activities. So if a friend RSVPs, others might become interested and decide to attend themselves.

How the parties are using the information is a trade secret none were willing to share. But the possibilities are endless. Facebook, for example, can tell the Conservative party that many of its followers also visit country music sites. The party can use that data to buy ads on those pages or country radio stations.

Meanwhile, of course, social media companies and search engines are amassing tremendous power to shape the campaign themselves.

What might show up in someone's newsfeed or how high a party's page appears during a Google search all depends on the algorithms those companies use. Research recently published in the U.S. found search rankings could boost the proportion of people favouring any candidate by more than 20 per cent — more than 60 per cent in some demographic groups.

Google has denied it would ever manipulate results.

Facebook says it views its role as non-partisan, seeking to help all parties think through how they can best engage with voters, and voters with the parties.

"When it comes to important moments in a country like an election in a democratic country, we want to make sure we can be helpful in that regard, to help the civic engagement process, to make sure people are able to connect directly with their leaders and with their parties," said Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook's Canadian operations.

The relatively low cost of online tools compared to traditional communication and polling vehicles is also what makes them attractive. It also gives parties the ability to field test ideas, slogans and tag lines and respond nearly in real time to events, an especially attractive tool in fundraising.

For the NDP, online fundraising now contributes to about 50 per cent of the money they raise. Cash will always have a role to play in politics, but the data that accompanies those fundraising emails is priceless.

Some are targeted to the news, others linked to particular policy. Some are just for fun — Conservatives may like country music star Taylor Swift, but a fundraising pitch sent out by the NDP using her name in the subject line was one of their most successful in luring first-time donors.

But every time someone clicks and gives a few bucks, the party learns a little more about what resonates with their supporters.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press