Backgrounder by Alex Antoneshyn
If you’re between the ages of 18 and 34, there’s a 57 per cent chance you’re reading this on your mobile phone. The older you are, the same likelihood decreases, but one fact remains: a growing number of Canadians are reaching to their phones for news.
This means a growing number of Canadians are using mobile news platforms to educate themselves during an election – but with what impact?
Some believe that news content tailored for publication on your mobile device has the potential to move more people to the polls, especially among the country’s younger generations. Although the only data available on this comes from the 2015 federal election, it is possible we’ll see the same trend emerging from the upcoming provincial election.
The idea that mobile media could mobilize its audience is founded in the belief that an increase in news exposure and availability will resurrect the electorate’s interest in political affairs. According to a Circa.ca study, news is the sixth-most frequented app in Canada, trailing behind weather, social networking, search engines, instant messaging service, and maps, but in front of banking, photo and video sharing, entertainment news, and sports.
Between December 2013 and December 2014, the number of subscribers to news applications rose by 27 percent, from 5.9 million subscribers to 7.5 million. According to these statistics, more Canadians subscribe to news outlets every day – and mobile use isn’t the only place that’s seeing a rise in numbers.
According to Statistics Canada, an increase was also seen in reports of 2015 voter participation. Although there was a rise overall (66.1 per cent in 2011 to 68.5 percent in 2015’s federal election), the youngest age groups of voters experienced the sharpest increase. While 55 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 voted in 2011, 67 per cent exercised their democratic right in 2015. Similarly, the percentage 25 to 34 year olds rose from 59 per cent to 70 per cent in 2015.
The 2011 election was notable for one other thing: the fall of the Conservative party. In comparison to the previous federal election, the number of Conservative seats in the House of Commons fell by 22 per cent when the Liberals were elected this past October. Although some would assume that Harper simply lost the faith of the voting public, the reality is that the Conservatives only lost 54,000 votes between the two federal elections, or less than one per cent of their share of the vote. Harper hardly lost any of his “old-stock” Canadians. What happened? More people voted – and it was these people who didn’t have faith in our previous prime minister. A Samara Canada analysis suggested that 2015’s issues and candidates caught the attention of voters who hadn’t participated in previous years.
The growing popularity of the Internet and all of its forms can’t be credited for these outcomes alone – but its impact is worthy of an investigation. Robert Biezenski, a sociology and social studies professor at the University of Regina, is of the opinion that mobile platforms have the potential to positively impact the election process.
“Over the long term, I do believe that social media and the internet (is) gradually improving people’s political participation,” said Biezenski. “I think that as people find out more for themselves… they become more engaged.”
A lack of interest was noted as the most common reason non-voters chose not to participate, in both the 2011 and 2015 federal elections. This past year, 33 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds reported they didn’t vote because they were “not interested in politics.” This number held steady for ages up to 44. Biezenski believes that with so much information readily available, this number will fall in the following years.
In the United States, the Pew Research Center finds that 66 per cent of social media users (equivalent to 39 per cent of U.S. adults) have engaged in civic and political activities with social media.
That the impact of mobile media on election participation remains a mystery is partly due to the infancy of mobile media. While the technology is young – cell phones that can access the Internet are a relatively new concept – mobile news is younger yet.
The Globe and Mail has only had an app since 2011, La Presse since 2013, and most recently, Toronto Star’s Star Touch launched in September 2015. The national broadcaster, CBC, launched its first app, CBC Radio, in 2009. Since then, its mobile development efforts have grown stronger said Len Cervantes, a mobile product manager and self-proclaimed “digital ninja” for CBC.
Toronto-based Cervantes recognizes the growing significance of mobile media, as does his employer recognize Canadians’ growing desire to access news anytime and anywhere. CBC’s live-time federal vote meter, which kept its audience up-to-date on the most-current election results, saw a transformation in the way its developers looked at the app. According to Cervantes, “(The app) was less of something where you look for an in-depth experience and it turned into a very utilitarian thing.”
The growth of mobile media has therefore affected both the people who create its content and those who consume it.
“There’s a participation aspect in media that exists with the younger demographic that didn’t exist historically,” said Cervantes. “So really, what is content? Is content the election, or is it people’s reaction to the election? And which one is news?”