By Austin M. Davis
For the first time, social media played a role in Regina’s mayoral election, but it didn’t create a surprising victory or an impressive turnout.
When Pat Fiacco won his last of four elections in 2009, he didn’t have Twitter. Not that he needed it.
Mayor-elect Michael Fougere had Twitter before the election on Oct. 24, but he didn’t need it either. He won by more than 5,000 votes; a number that far exceeded his followers and likes on Twitter and Facebook.
Paris-based analyst group Semiocast released numbers of Twitter users in July. Canada ranks eighth in the world for Twitter accounts with 10 million, only about two per cent of the total accounts in the world.
At City Hall after his victory, Fougere told INK that as a new user of social media, he found Twitter especially useful that night.
“I found the results of the election on Twitter before I saw it on television,” Fougere said. “It’s quite amazing what the impact is of social media.”
Fougere’s campaign was a remarkable example of name recognition – rewarded by 21,685 votes. He had served 15 years as a city councilor in Ward Four and an early endorsement from Fiacco essentially locked up Fougere’s victory.
The mayoral race was Fougere’s to lose from the start, a fact that put pressure on his two main competitors, Marian Donnelly and Meka Okochi.
Before the polls closed, Donnelly, who placed in second with 16,240 votes, acknowledged that social media had its limitations.
“I think that it helps you reach a certain age group. The thing that I found on this campaign was Twitter was where the most negativity came up,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly said it was much easier and more effective to deal with serious questions on Facebook and her website.
Meka Okochi called social media a “fundamental tool” during his campaign. He said that using traditional methods would have been nearly impossible, as he wanted a grassroots campaign.
“Twitter has been a very good tool for us because we understood a couple of things: that it can be a powerful tool, but it can also be a very damaging tool,” Okochi said.
Okochi’s approach resonated with a younger demographic. He captured 8,960 votes, 17 per cent.
Okochi and Donnelly combined for more votes than Fougere, a sign that dissenting voices in Regina were unable to unite under one candidate.
After the 2008 American election, Matthew Kushin and Masahiro Yamamoto studied college students’ use of social media in Barack Obama’s victory. Routledge published their findings in 2010.
They found that traditional Internet sources had much more impact on the election. In their conclusion they wrote that the open and collaborative nature of social media is a user-content generated platform. Without discourse that engages people, social media would cease to be relevant for any political purpose.
Brennan Neufeld, a student at the University of Regina, used social media to make his decision on election day.
“Twitter helped me figure out who I wanted to vote for based on their personality. I did not specifically follow any candidates but I looked at their feeds and I saw what they were saying and I tried to piece together who they were and not what their policies were,” Neufeld said.
Neufeld, 22, was a Twitter user before the election and had an understanding of how it should and shouldn’t be used. He said that how candidates conducted themselves online would reflect how they conduct themselves if elected into office.
During the months leading up to the campaign, there was a lot of focus on #yqrvotes. The Twitter hashtag became a place people could go to share opinions on the civic election.
Sitaram Asur and Bernardo A. Huberman created what they called a model to predict the future using social media and published it online at arXiv. They used movie box office earnings as their example and argued that the frequency, mass and tone of tweets could be used to predict the popularity of movies. This model has been loosely adapted in the past to the American system during primaries. Its fatal flaw is that it does not include the large number of people who do not use Twitter.
Though candidates were using social media to communicate with potential voters, these were people who were already engaged users of these outlets. Only 32 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, seven per cent higher than in 2009. The 51,440 votes were only about 16,000 more votes than the total in Fiacco’s last election.
There was a much larger voter base in this election that were receiving campaign information in traditional means: billboards, flyers and the mainstream news.
In four years there will be more people using social media in Regina as an important way to share information, especially about politics, but it might be a while until that group becomes the voting majority.