Fifteen years ago, author and business executive Tim O’Reilly coined the term “Web 2.0” to describe a new wave of networked communication and information technologies that were emerging on the World Wide Web. At the heart of Web 2.0 was a dramatic increase in possibilities for Internet users to participate in publishing and otherwise voicing their opinions, thoughts, and emotions online. Overall, these communication platforms were intensely hyped for their democratic affordances.

Heading into the fall federal election, Web 2.0 – now more commonly referred to simply as “social media” – has emerged as a political issue itself; in effect, as the primary source of potential election disruption. Gone are the days of plurality, transparency and dialogue on the net, replaced by an emergent politics of anonymity stoked by alt-right activists and populist politicians. Which party leaders will fall prey to these new political actors and forces come election day?

The evolution of social media during elections

In the early years of Web 2.0, the Canadian political establishment faced an emergent group of online political actors – bloggers, often partisan – both within and outside of the main political parties. Such bloggers challenged long established political practices, both within political parties and for journalists covering elections. Stéphane Dion’s surprise election as Liberal party leader in 2006 received substantial support from bloggers, as did opposition from conservative online activists opposed to the prospect of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition after the 2008 election.

Following former US president Barack Obama’s successful 2008 election campaign, widely dubbed the first Internet election, the subsequent 2011 Canadian federal election witnessed a complete overhaul of campaign logistics, from communications, fundraising and event organizing, to candidate vetting, news monitoring and, finally, get-out-the-vote efforts. Campaigns and, increasingly, voters were managed with the help of software such as NationBuilder that linked together social media, the Internet and mobile media. Disruptive forces on the Internet were seemingly kept at bay as campaigns sought to integrate the power of online information into their overall campaign strategies and planning. Following the lead of tech giants Facebook and Google, for example, the 2011 and 2015 elections witnessed an intensification and integration of data-mining and demographic research into campaigns to better allocate resources and target messages at likely supportive voters and communities.

In Canada, the 2015 election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister marked the apex of the managed voter (and Internet), where democratic disruptions in the electoral process were largely tamed. Embarrassing social media content was now scrubbed and candidates were and vetted, financial and staffing resources were more efficiently targeted, and responses to critical media stories were quickly identified and addressed. Indeed, Trudeau’s social media election marked a temporary return to the image politics of yesteryear, where the forces of the media were marshaled to highlight the youthful looks of a new prime minister in waiting – such was the role of the Liberal party machine’s image-driven campaign that filled the photo-centric Instagram platform with countless images of the smiling Trudeau and his photogenic family.

New social media disruptions

Heading into the 2019 federal election, however, the political landscape will likely witness social media denizens once again returning to the familiar role of election campaign disrupter. Initially in 2005 and through the early years of Conservative Stephen Harper’s former governments, social media arguably offered more challenges to the Liberals, NDP and Greens – parties that positioned themselves as inclusive, democratic and, more importantly, in opposition to the more-managerial style of Harper’s Conservative party. In an attempt to grow their membership ranks, recruit new candidates and engage their supporters, the opposition parties were faced with often divergent and sometimes dissenting voices online from within their own ranks.

This fall’s federal election, however, marks perhaps the first time since the advent of social media elections that disruptive elements on the Internet will likely put pressure on the Conservative party’s message and campaign. While there is an obvious case to be made for watching – and preparing for – possible foreign intervention in the fall campaign, so-called alt-right voices online who explicitly spread jarring, politically incorrect language, memes and critiques are poised to support conservative issues and candidates.

Internet sites such as 4chan have become popular with alt-right voices, in part because these sites have retained a rigid culture of anonymity, where individuals are free to express politically incorrect language and ideas. Such content, in other words, actively seeks to shock, with purposefully objectionable language and imagery. 4chan is also flush with political content produced in Canada. Research from Marc Tuters of the University of Amsterdam has found that Canadians are the third most active posters to the 4chan site.

The Canadian electorate is particularly susceptible to information and political content and commentary spread on social media. The Pew Research Center recently found that only South Koreans accessed social media more than Canadians to get their news. Concerns over the veracity and national source of such information will no doubt continue throughout the fall and during the election campaign. But so, too, will the political tone of such content, given the rise of the alt-right after US President Donald Trump’s first few years in office.

Since general elections tend to be won by courting so-called swing or politically moderate voters, the party leaders might want to clearly distance themselves from any inflammatory content online, or accuse their opponents of supporting fringe ideologies. There are early signs that such dynamics are already at play. Trudeau, for example, has already begun to associate Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives with racist and misogynist ideas spread on the “anything goes” platform 4chan. However, if such content circulates beyond conservative online commentators and partisan news sites, and resonates with policy debates on the campaign trail, it could be Trudeau’s Liberals who face pressure from online criticism over his energy and immigration policies.

Thus, while the Internet and social media will continue to serve as a central site of communications and campaign management for the coming election, its more radical, fringe content could emerge as the key site of disruption, setting the tone for appeals to Canada’s swing voters and ridings.

This article is part of The media and Canadian elections special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Sander van der Werf

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Greg Elmer
Greg Elmer is professor of communication and culture at Ryerson University. In the fall of 2019, Elmer will serve as research collaborator on the Digital Ecosystem Project, tracking the political influence of fringe websites, actors and the dark web during the election campaign.

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