By mobilizing potential voters and personalizing his campaign via social media, Justin Trudeau used digital technologies to his advantage in Canada’s federal election last year.
When Justin Trudeau won the leadership position of Canada’s Liberal Party in 2013, social media was widely viewed as a key element of his success (Gruzd and Roy 2014). The use of social media in political processes and debates, however, was not new at the time. While few candidates were committed to using social media to its full potential in the UK’s 2010 general election (Southern and Ward 2011), Barack Obama’s exploitation of social media in America’s 2008 primary and presidential election continues to be heralded as the model for the full potential of digital technology in an election campaign (Strömer-Galley 2014).
Today, the use of social media in political campaigning has become seemingly prevalent; it is valuable to examine how – if at all – it is changing the nature of election campaigning. In order to explore this topic in-depth, I have chosen one political campaign to analyze.
Justin Trudeau won a majority government for the Liberal Party as the Prime Minister of Canada in the nation’s federal election on 19 October 2015. Trudeau’s campaign is said to have been the first Canadian campaign where social media played a significant role (MacDougall 2015). Thus, a closer look at the digital strategies Trudeau employed would be worthwhile. This is because although social media is generally considered a positive development for electioneering (Killin and Small 2015), few critical assessments of social media’s role in Trudeau’s campaign have been made. Moreover, “simply running a sophisticated online campaign is no guarantor of electoral success” (Southern and Ward 2011: 234). This essay discusses the impact of social media on political campaigning for Justin Trudeau in the 2015 Canadian federal election. By using evidence and examples, I will analyze the extent to which Trudeau engaged and mobilized Canadians as well as personalized his campaign via social media.
Firstly, Trudeau’s understanding of social media’s potential to engage Canadians is evidenced by the fact that he had a strong online presence on many platforms. He regularly catered content to each of his profiles on seven major social networking sites during the election. Additionally, as of 15 October 2015, Trudeau had the most number of likes on his Facebook page and the most number of YouTube subscribers in comparison to the other candidates (Braidwood 2015; Twitter Canada 2015, as cited in Bogart 2015). Though the view that the internet has improved the ability of campaigns to inform and mobilize voters (Davis et al. 2010) holds the capabilities of the internet in high regard, Bennett and Iyengar (2008), cited in Nielsen and Vaccari (2013), argue that a wider Web presence across a range of social media sites are today integral to how campaigns try to communicate. It is consequently not surprising that Trudeau acknowledged the considerable potential for political communication using the tools of the Internet (Nielsen and Vaccari 2013) and realized that in order to connect with the 82% of Canadians that use a social network, it was essential not only to go online, but also to actively communicate and engage with them.
By using powerful, emotional language and images on social media platforms such as Twitter, Trudeau attempted to connect with Canadians on a large scale. On 6 October 2015, for instance, Trudeau tweeted “Our Canada Child Benefit will lift 60K kids out of poverty in Quebec alone – that’s every seat in the Big O! #elxn42” with an image of him inside Montreal’s Olympic Stadium looking up at rows of empty seats. This tweet had hundreds of retweets and likes. Throughout the election, many of Trudeau’s tweets similarly seemed to evoke emotion rather than plain factuality. His tweets included vocabulary like “movement” and “inclusivity.” He also tweeted about who would “stand with” him and “building something together with Canadians” (McKibbin 2015). It appears, therefore, that Trudeau understood he would not succeed in engaging voters to act if the information he provided via social media was uninformative (Baumgartner and Morris 2010, cited in Conway et al. 2013), or relied solely on uninteresting press releases.
Another aspect of Trudeau’s Twitter strategy in his attempt to engage and mobilize Canadians points to his consistent use of hashtags. According to Raynauld (2015), “hashtags were instrumental in organizing flows of information and social interactions during the 2015 election” in Canada. There were more than 770,000 election-related tweets on election day and more than half of them used the hashtag #elxn42 (Twitter Canada 2015, as cited in Bogart 2015). Throughout his entire campaign, Trudeau ensured his tweets would appear in popular Twitter searches by repeatedly using two hashtags: #elxn42 – the unofficial Twitter hashtag for the 42nd Canadian federal election – as well as #RealChange. On election day, over half of Trudeau’s tweets featured the #RealChange hashtag and its French version, #changerensemble.
The #RealChange hashtag in particular came to symbolize much more than just the basis of the Liberal party’s platform and Trudeau’s campaign. The people who used the hashtag #RealChange in their posts and tweets arguably did so to band together in solidarity with other Trudeau supporters who were also dissatisfied with their government. In a study about social media campaigning in the 2009 European Parliament elections, Vesnic-Alujevic (2012) found that the more respondents were involved in online political participation on their Facebook profile pages, the more they participated in politics “offline.” Moreover, Krueger (2002), cited in Hindman (2009), maintains that the internet is capable of mobilizing any previously inactive citizens. These findings suggest that Trudeau’s use of the hashtag #RealChange had a positive effect on his campaign and mobilized people to participate in both online and offline political processes.
There is a counter argument to the notion that retweets, likes or the use of hashtags on Twitter can engage possible voters to act, however. Patten (2013) believes that very few people will ever be impacted by a politician’s active tweeting. According to Jones (1997), as cited in Papacharissi (2010: 104), “digital citizens engage in a variety of discussions online, some of which are politically motivated, but that does not always produce offline political impact.” Anstead (2015) adds that the analysis of social media environments such as Twitter should not be treated like polling data which can be divided into percentages indicating support. Indeed, social media’s ability to influence political outcomes should not be overestimated. As the impact of social media on Trudeau’s campaign has not yet been fully quantified, it would be difficult to assume that the people who retweeted Trudeau or used his signature hashtags voted for Trudeau’s Liberals.
Nevertheless, Trudeau and his team directly interacted with supporters online and perhaps this is what made more of an impact on mobilization than hashtags and empowering photographs. On Twitter, Trudeau replied to other users’ tweets and promoted direct dialogue between them through “candidate-voter interaction” (Conway et al. 2013). In this way, he listened to supporters and replied with timely, individual responses. On Facebook, Trudeau’s social media moderators regularly reminded users to keep discussions respectful and were quick to reply with links to policy statements or information when necessary (McKibbon 2015). Thus, Trudeau realized the importance of constant responsiveness and monitoring audience interests online (Marwick and Boyd 2011, cited in Conway et al. 2013). A study on the effects of Twitter on national politics found that candidates who participated in online conversation with the public fared better off in image than politicians who did not (Ausserhofer and Maireder 2013). It can be suggested, therefore, that by taking the time to directly engage with his supporters in a “two-way flow” of information (Southern and Ward 2011: 231), Trudeau successfully promoted his image. This might explain why he was the most-tweeted about candidate on election night. Trudeau had received over 150,000 tweets to @justintrudeau by the end of election night, whereas Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s account @pmharper had 68,385 tweets and the New Democrative Party leader Thomas Mulcair received only 21,602 tweets to @thomasmulcair (King 2015).
Trudeau’s interactive social media strategy to directly engage with citizens can be compared to Obama’s winning digital media strategy during the 2008 US election. Instead of merely broadcasting information, Obama “created conversation in a two-way relationship” with supporters who asked questions about particular issues via text messages (Harfoush 2009: 7). Afterward, their comments were mentioned on blogs and various social networks. Rahaf Harfoush (2009: 7), a digital strategist who was a member of Obama’s digital media team during his 2008 campaign, believes “creating meaningful online relationships is an investment of time, effort and energy. You can’t rush it and you can’t fake it.” Similar to Obama, Trudeau arguably strived to gain approval from possible voters by investing the effort required to foster purposeful relationships with them. Trudeau’s encouragement of direct participation from voters will be analyzed to a greater degree in the second half of this essay.
The extent to which Trudeau engaged and mobilized Canadians via social media in the 2015 Canadian federal election was examined in the initial half of this essay. The second half will evaluate how Trudeau personalized his election campaign online and the impact of him doing so, beginning with the notion that he created a genuine online presence for himself.
Photographs posted on Instagram, for instance, of Trudeau playing in parks with his children while on the campaign trail offered Canadians an intimate view into his life and made him seem relatable. Obama’s new media team in the 2008 US election likewise posted photographs online of Obama engaging in everyday activities such as running with his dog. This technique helped to create a “personable, accessible online presence” for Obama, developed a strong sense of loyalty among his supporters (Harfoush 2013) and spurred them to be “more intensely engaged with the online political debate” (Smith 2009).
Whether or not Trudeau’s online supporters tended to be more likely to share political content via social media like Obama’s supporters had done, Gibson (2015: 184) points out that an online presence constituting as an “authentic representation of an individual” is gaining mainstream acceptance in the campaigns literature. Moreover, a report on Canada’s 2015 federal election found that ‘celebritization’ – using politicians’ lives to engage with citizens and voters in a more personal than ideological way – informs political communication strategies (Marland and Giasson 2015). Based on these findings and by comparing Trudeau’s online presence with that of Obama’s, I suggest that the careful creation of a personable online presence could have been significant for Trudeau’s campaign.
Another approach in which Trudeau appeared relatable on social media points to his openness of being photographed in ‘selfies.’ Although there is no evidence that Trudeau took more smartphone self-portraits with potential voters than the other candidates did, much of his coverage on social media was driven by selfie moments (MacDougall 2015). Additionally, a glance at Twitter in the months leading up to election day shows that many Canadians who encountered Trudeau during his campaign tweeted photographs of selfies with him along with the hashtags #RealChange and #electionselfie. According to political sociology professor Diane Pacom (2015), as quoted in McDiarmid (2015), posing for selfies has become mandatory in politics. Heule (2015) adds that selfies are powerful brand building tools for political leaders which could turn into thousands of public endorsements.
Yet the lack of research on selfies in the realm of political campaigning means that it is difficult to gauge their impact on Trudeau’s online campaign. Nevertheless, Raynauld (2015) believes the increase in popularity of image and short video-based social media outlets and visual forms of digital expression (e.g. Snapchat, selfies, memes, emojis, etc.) will transform the ways in which political players take part in different facets of the electoral process. Furthermore, voters now not only expect candidates to be engaging online (Southern and Ward 2011), but also greater degrees of dialogue and interactivity with candidates fostered by new technologies (Coleman 2005, cited in Southern and Ward 2011). This could mean that in future, the use of selfies on social media might play a key role in political campaigning. It should be noted that it became a trend for voters to take pictures of themselves at polling stations and share them online with the hashtags #electionselfie and #votingselfie during Canada’s 2015 election. However, the extent to which voters expect candidates to share selfies taken with them online remains to be seen.
Trudeau personalized his campaign on social media not only with images and selfies, but also with humorous videos. Most of Trudeau’s videos were short (i.e. less than sixty seconds long) and to the point which thus prompted quick shares and retweets (Jeanes 2015). In an animated video entitled ‘Your Guide to Canadian Political Hair,’ shared on YouTube and on Twitter, Trudeau poked fun at himself. The video communicated that no matter what hairstyle Trudeau had, his Liberal party platform remained the same. Despite the fact that his competitors were also sharing videos of themselves on social media, Trudeau’s video stood out because it was funny, memorable and refreshing in that it was not an advertisement attacking another political party. It was also one way in which Trudeau added his “own special touch” to his online campaign – a strategy which made all the difference for Obama’s 2008 campaign (Harfoush 2009: 12).
The final example to illustrate how Trudeau personalized his campaign on social media is an approach which takes the idea of direct voter participation one step further. When Trudeau live-streamed the announcement of his Liberal party platform using a new Facebook video feature in early October 2015, he made the effort to cultivate meaningful relationships with voters. Canadians were encouraged to ask Trudeau questions via Facebook live online and in answering some of their questions, Trudeau exploited social media’s “potential to engage directly with voters in a more interactive way” (Nielsen and Vaccari 2013: 2338). Moreover, it is probable that Trudeau was the first politician to release a campaign platform via Facebook live (Sinclair 2015, as cited in Watters 2015). Ultimately, Trudeau strived to personally connect with voters as well as undermine the theory that most people and politicians do not meet online (Nielsen and Vaccari 2013: 2338).
Obama, too, took an intimate approach in communicating with voters by tailoring his 2008 campaign to individual preferences and needs. During an online question and answer session, for instance, Obama’s team selected one user’s question and “instead of simply posting a response on the site,” Obama called and spoke with the woman directly (Harfoush 2009: 13). He recorded the brief conversation and made it available on various social network profiles. As such, Curran (2012) maintains that the internet helped Obama win votes in the primary elections and the subsequent presidential election in 2008. More broadly, “voters in 2008 were not just passive followers of the political process” (Smith 2009), but rather, “they used a wide range of digital tools and technologies to get involved in the race, to harness their creativity in support of their chosen candidate, and to join forces with others who shared their same political goals.” Though it cannot be concluded that social media helped Trudeau win votes in the 2015 election, I argue that Trudeau followed Obama’s lead and “unlocked the full potential of social media” (Southern and Ward 2011: 230) by interacting with potential voters and replying to their feedback in his own individual way.
In sum, several examples have been highlighted in this essay to discuss the extent to which Justin Trudeau engaged and mobilized Canadians as well as personalized his campaign via social media in Canada’s 2015 federal election. Trudeau used emotional language and images and consistent hashtags online. He also employed similar strategies that Obama used in the 2008 election: Trudeau appeared personable on social media, directly interacted with supporters and promoted intimate conversations with them. To account for the impact of Trudeau’s social media usage, previous studies and academic concepts have been referenced.
To conclude, I have found that much of the existing literature supports the idea that Trudeau successfully exploited the capabilities of social media in his campaign. When placed in the wider discussion of political campaigning, not adopting the technology of social media could risk “missing out on potential benefits” which contribute indirectly to successful campaigns (Southern and Ward 2011: 234). Despite the belief that winning a campaign online is “far removed from the battle that secures electoral victory” (Lilleker 2015) and that the internet has not given birth to a new kind of politics (Curran 2012), deciding against adopting the technology of social media was a risk Trudeau did not take.
I contend, therefore, that it is highly likely “candidates and their campaigns will continue to experiment with these new technologies in order to discover if they are capable of having a major impact on election outcomes” (Davis et al. 2010: 23). This could mean that the use of social media in political campaigning has yet to reach its full potential.
A full list of references can be provided upon request.