As the weather cools and the leaves begin to turn and fall, there’s no doubt October has arrived. And in addition to bringing autumn to the Fraser Valley, this year October’s also brought the winds of change as a new election season—one unlike any other—descends upon us.
“The political landscape has changed in a few key ways,” explained Darren Blakeborough, an assistant professor at UFV who specializes in pop culture, new media, and social gerontology studies.
“It was probably the first Barack Obama campaign that highlighted how important social media could be in an (election). (He) used (social media) to engage young people in a way that hadn’t been done before to get them out to vote, which was a tipping point in his election.”
And while the race to become Chilliwack’s next mayor or a council member may not be quite as intense as running for president, or prime minister, the tools of the trade are the same because the name of the game—winning—is the same.
To win an election, politicians engage in campaigns they hope will lead them to the top. And the keystone in any solid campaign is communication: not only do candidates need to be able to effectively communicate their platform to voters, the general public is now accustomed to having instant access to its politicians.
“I was trying to be there always,” said Sharon Gaetz, who’s running for her fourth term as Chilliwack’s mayor.
“I was on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (because I could access) a group of the community and I wanted to be there with them. Social medial certainly has its positive points,” she said.
And although technology is often associated with a younger generation, “social media isn’t just a millennial thing—as they well know,” said Blakeborough.
“Their parents and grandparents are on Facebook and Instagram. Social media is an important tool in the modern electoral process.”
Starting in the late ’80s with communication methods such as bulletin board systems (BBS) and internet relay chat (IRC), technology and the internet have increased our ability to connect with each other despite geographical boundaries and allowed for the creation of social media.
Today, nearly two thirds of Canadians, almost 23 million people, have at least one social media account they use regularly, and a Pew Research Centre study reported 42 per cent of the country using social media on a daily basis for their news—fake or not—consumption.
“There’s a quote about social media I enjoy,” said Blakeborough with a chuckle. “Social media is fantastic because it allows everybody to have a voice. The downside to that is everyone has a voice.
“Social media gives (the public) direct access to the people they want to have access to, instantaneously. It’s great that way, but it can also be a cesspool,” continued the social sciences professor.
“And you have to protect yourself from that,” added Gaetz, who’s recently returned to Facebook after a nearly four-year absence. “I was looking after my soul when I escaped.
“I didn’t realize how much time I was spending with my computer on my knees,” she explained. But by opening herself up and engaging in the community’s discourse via social media, Gaetz says she exposed herself to every dark or nasty thought about her people were willing to post.
“I embraced (social media) really early and was a great fan until a very apparent loss of civility,” Gaetz continued. “We don’t believe in bullying in real life, so we always have to remember there’s a person on the other end.”
“I’ve watched the online space become highly polarized,” said Jason Lum, who’s running for his third term on council. That said, “I have used a variety of different channels to communicate since my election in 2011, (and) I totally dig (social media) as a communication tool to attract and engage constituents.”
Which is what brought Gaetz back to the fold: both the importance of social media in today’s society, as well as being on even footing with her political opponents, despite the lasting impression made by “keyboard warriors” after her last election win.
“Everyone’s doing it,” said Blakeborough matter-of-factly. “It’s part of the game.
”And social media allows the regular citizen to hold the fire to the feet of their elected officials (and) keeps them in account, which is a positive thing … a watchdog as it were (because) I think we might start seeing things happening (locally) like we saw in the States: that sort of takeover of the (online) discussion by bots.
“So (that means) it’s our responsibility to be aware of that, to fact check, and ignore the things that are ludicrous,” said Blakeborough.