Study examines social media in municipal elections

Doug Hagar is studying how Niagara municipal election candidates use social media.

Doug Hagar is studying how Niagara municipal election candidates use social media.

More municipal election candidates are using social media. But few are actually taking advantage of everything the medium has to offer.

That’s the early finding in a new study by Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory, which is looking at social media and the civic election in Niagara. Research assistant Doug Hagar is examining a sampling of 105 candidates in Niagara’s municipal election, including region and city.

So far, he’s found that about half have some form of online presence, whether it be a website or presence on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. But in many cases, it seems to be a token presence, rather than a way to engage voters.

“Very few are actually engaging in it,” he said. “Few are getting well-formed questions posed to them that lead to thoughtful answers.”

It’s a study progressing at breakneck speed for Hagar, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in Political Science from Brock. He began it about three and a half weeks ago and is working overtime leading up to the Oct. 25 election.

He’s analyzing Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds and YouTube channels to learn how the candidates are using them. Many candidates want a presence, but with some, the lack of use or engagement makes it obvious the accounts were established by relatives or campaign workers.

“Judging from the content, some have clearly gotten help,” he said.

Hagar will determine which candidates used social media and how they used it. Factors include interactivity, content, ease of navigation and writing style.

Campaigning via social media is increasingly common. In the future, it will likely compliment existing tools like election signs and door knocking rather than rule them out altogether, Hagar said. Increasing use of social media can also equalize campaigns, since current election outcomes are heavily influenced by how much money candidates spend.

Few studies exist on the use of social media and elections. Those that do look at U.S. President Barack Obama and how he mobilized supporters using Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs, he said.

New Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s popularity was also evident in social media, Hagar said. As a candidate, he had 398,000 YouTube views, 4,200 Twitter followers and 11,839 “likes” on Facebook, far more than any of the other candidates.

“I want to find out how it’s being used and whether it’s being used effectively, and perhaps that will lead to suggestions on how it can be used effectively,” Hagar said.

The policy brief is scheduled for release at the end of November. Hagar and the observatory also hope to publish an article.

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