26 July 2011

Plastic, packaged and preaching to the choir

While some people may be excited about the fact that all three party leaders in the province are on Da Twitter, a close look at how political parties in newfoundland and Labrador are using, or not using social media, shows that there is a lot less here than meets the eye.

NTV aired two stories last week about social media and the upcoming provincial election.  Your humble e-scribbler is in both, along with local blogger and former candidate Stephen Eli Harris.  The first piece – here – started from the news that Kathy Dunderdale is the first Premier to use Twitter. The second one – here – built off the fact that the provincial government’s energy corporation is also using Twitter as part of its campaign to gain support for its Muskrat Falls megadebt project.

Do a quick Internet search and you will find plenty of commentary and analysis on the Obama campaign and social media.  Some of the more interesting assessments compare how the republican and Democrat campaigns in 2008 differed.  The Republicans preached to the choir.  That is they used social media as a way of speaking to people who were already committed Republicans or who were leaning heavily that way.

The Democrats used social media as a way of tapping into a large pool of swing voters, alienated voters and independents. The used social media to draw potential voters to core materials and give them plenty of options to take action in support of the campaign.

Both strategies are built around the basic point that social media offer some pretty potent ways to reach voters who are now tuned in a great many places besides television, radio and the local newspaper.

In the upcoming provincial election, you will see that the Conservatives have a heavy Twitter presence. The New Democrats are using it and some Liberals have discovered that it exists.

The more important thing to notice is the content.  The Conservatives tend to spout their talking points or spit out meaningless pap about getting a haircut. The New Democrats tend to retweet campaign news from the party president or leader.  In short, they are packaged, plastic and preaching to the choir. 

One exception that stands out: Jerome Kennedy, with this tweet:

"the harmonies of new floods", "the thunder of insentient seas", "eternal pathways of fire"- E.J. Pratt's "Newfoundland". Required reading.

The dunderdale2011.ca website doesn’t have any sign of an effort to attract supporters, engage them and turn them into activists.  Sure, there’s a “Get Involved” button but it takes you to some sterile text:

There are many ways you can get involved in our Party.

In the lead-up to the general election campaign in October 2011, you may choose to volunteer with your local district association in support of your Progressive Conservative candidate.

You may wish to serve with Young Progressive Conservatives, the Progressive Conservative Women’s Caucus or the provincial campaign.

If you wish to get involved as a volunteer, please contact our Party office:  blah blah blah

This is not about pulling people in and turning them into activists.  This is a website about pushing information out, most likely to people who are already converts.  And if you think about it in light of the leadership controversy earlier this year,  that’s basically the way the party runs.

Ditto for  the NDP website.  For starters it’s just a sub-page from the national NDP site.  The buttons that look like ways to get involved are just e-mail forms to fill out so somebody can contact you later.  The Twitter button takes you to the leader’s feed.  As this is written on Monday evening, the last update was 24 hours earlier.

They’ve got a map of where they have candidates for the election.  That’s right above a list of nominated candidates:  14 as of July 25. The individual candidate web pages are pretty bare.  There’s not much there beyond some basic biographical information.

Ditto ditto the Liberal website.  it hasn’t been updated in a couple of months.  if you click the “where we stand” button you will find the party constitution.  No sign of a platform or policies. The news page is up-to-date with releases as recently as Monday. 

That’s the one clue on this website that there’s an election on.  There is a link to something called candidate nominations but it is a pdf of candidate profiles and pictures.  It’s out of date, to boot.

Of course, that’s pretty much consistent with political parties that aren’t interested in drawing in new supporters based on a platform aimed at voter interests.  As your humble e-scribbler noted for NTV, you are going to have a hard time sliding a sheet of paper between the parties on major issues. The one thing they will all have in common is a commitment to spend gobs of public cash:  pork is the priority. Likewise, for all parties – but especially the current incumbent Tories, it will be yet more  paternalism.

Local political parties all practice a form of defensive politics that involves a combination of preaching to the people they already have while repeating whatever it is the other guys have been doing that worked before.  The more aggressive forms of the defence – like the Tories in 2007 – also use heavy doses of Republican-style attack politics to suppress the opponents.  It can work spectacularly well.

Well, sort of.  The 2007 Tories won a landslide of seats but they actually didn’t get any more votes.  What they managed to do was demoralise the Liberals whose lacklustre campaign couldn’t draw anyone out.  The Liberal vote collapsed and that made it easy for the Tories to pick up seats.

But the Tories actually got fewer votes in 2007 than they did in 2003.

That isn’t what you may think if you only listened to the superficial media reports that did nothing more than repeat the intensive hype coming from the Tory camp.

The current Tory strategy is essentially a pledge for more of the same. For the campaign, that seems to mean yet more of the same but without the small-minded, vicious personal attacks that were Danny Williams’ stock in trade.

Other than that, there’s nothing really new in their campaign at all. Social media could let voters see real people and let that personality energise the campaign. Instead, they get some cross between Max Headroom and Johnny Cab.

Don’t be surprised if the parties have to struggle to get their voters to the polls.  The Tories are almost certain to face that problem. The other two parties don’t stand much of a chance at pulling new voters to their cause and they too will work to get the same people to the polls again.  Some individual campaigns might stand out but at the provincial level, the campaigns are pretty much brain dead.

And growth isn’t really what they are doing even if, as with the New Democrats, they are claiming that miracles are about to happen.  Consider that for all the hype, the Dippers only have 14 candidates in place.  That’s roughly the same number as the Liberals. None of them has a name or a profile outside of their own community or in some cases outside their own household.

For parties trying to take down an incumbent government, social media should be the tool of choice. What’s so interesting about the current election campaign and social media is that neither political party in the province is doing anything but using the new, revolutionary tools, to spit out more of the same old anti-revolutionary crap.

At this point, that’s the story of social media and the 2011 election.

-srbp -