Most people, I hope, are not regularly searching the voteTO hashtag – it can be overwhelming and even depressing. If you are regularly combing #voteTO, you are probably part of a candidate’s elite social media consulting task force. Even Toronto journalists have for the most part not been #voteTO devotees. It isn’t that they are shy about Twitter, during mayoral debates and the G20 riots/protests/police crackdown they grasped that Twitter is a valuable tool, it’s that reporting on #voteTO usually isn’t news. During my summer internship, I regularly combing through #voteTO for EYE WEEKLY’s municipal election blog. In the election campaign, it seems like Twitter has become a shouting match rather than a forum. As the debate heats up and some Torontonians turn to Twitter to become more informed about the race, here are my reflections of the summer of #voteTO as I saw it.
VoteTO in 416
Twitter was once a tool that promised a new era of civic engagement. Not to be a downer, but that hasn’t entirely panned out. Yes, there are some great groups and I’d like to mention one right now: voteto.ca. VoteTO.ca is a group of University of Toronto grads and students (with a dash of young activists from other corners of the city), who put together a forum where people could talk about the issue most important to them. A pretty interesting group of people came together to make the most out of their 4 minutes and 16 of fame (hence 416). This one little event is a lot more like what Twitter should be than what it is, despite their charming story of initially having met on Twitter.
Since their event in February they haven’t focused on much in the way of citywide events or really captured the attention of much of the city. There was, of course, their work with the Ward 27 candidates game show and, more recently, with tenant registration – but the sense of spontaneous political energy isn’t there.
Twitter is zero-cost publishing. It doesn’t take much time to write a tweet and costs nothing to activate account or make a post. Sometimes people get…creative. The number one subject of this creativity in the Toronto mayoral race has been Rob Ford. He is, by my pretty confident estimate, the most faked mayoral candidate. Four out of five candidates were faked in mid-July (incidentally around the same time Ford polled as the front-runner), but even prior to that Ford was the subject of parody (@RobFordAngry and so on). No one has claimed responsibility for the fakes – though I was initially suspicious that Joe Pantalone did not have one, maybe it because the handle @joepants was taken – but most fakes seem to have a campaign agenda. They definitely weren’t funny enough to be made for the sake of comedy.
On top of the real candidates being faked you have the beloved @rebelmayor and John Tory. @rebelmayor’s identity has been an attractive mystery, attracting speculation about mayoral candidate Himy Syed from Jackson Proskow of Global TV. John Tory earned his fake stripes (the second most fakes after Ford) during the period of intense speculation around whether he would join the race. In Tory’s case, there was a little more humour (though they were mostly mean-spirited concentrations of anti-Tory rhetoric). Other than the fakes, #voteTO was a great forum where people were trying to figure out whether they would vote for Tory if he were running.
Old School and New Media
In the nineteenth century, before the secret ballot, you used to have to climb the hustings and announce your candidate to vote. This would attract supporters of either side who’d yell their candidate’s name and generally try to bully and cajole voters at the last minute. Usually this was not a reasoned argument, sometimes it was violent and I imagine it looked like the talking points that get constantly rehashed on #voteTO. While the nineteenth century version of the political mob mentality looked like gang violence with mutton chops and ascots, the twenty-first century we’re blessed with identity-obscuring profile pictures and campaign Twibbons. Essentially though, at any given point in the day, partisans for the four most Twitter-oriented camps (Ford, Smitherman, Rossi and Thomson) were hammering the same tidbits and rumours. Who they thought they were convincing, I was never sure because if you saw their posts as I did (through #voteTO) it seemed like repetitive noise. Maybe the problem was my unusually close look at the Twitter side of the race.
Based on this, I have some suggestions for Torontonians just beginning to engage in the campaign and looking to use Twitter to interact with their candidates. Use #voteTO searches with caution: they only indicate the pulse of Twitter and not the city (as Rob Ford’s marijuana flap indicates) – Twitter is a supplement, not a substitute for debates and reading platforms. Pick a few people to follow, journalists maybe, candidates and campaigners who you think are interesting and make a Twitter list. It will probably be a less exciting thing to check up on (less yelling, if you’re like me), but might give you an idea of major policy announcements. I have my list of Toronto election tweeters is public. I have been both adding and trimming candidates for the last few months, but it’s always best to make your own – isn’t that part of the point of social media?
For more on Twitter and the Toronto election: Spacing has an interesting post #voteTO and the mayoral race, I just found it just after writing and before posting this.
Now I’m off to learn a bit about the Ottawa municipal election, which is just starting in earnest next week (the first mayoral debate is September 12).
[Update: edited a few points for clarity Sun, Sep 5, 2010 – 1:34pm]