New media playing same old election song in Alberta

The Twittersphere is just the same old, same old

April 9, 2012

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CALGARY, April 9, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Two weeks into the Alberta provincial election and social media are responsible for two of the biggest controversies of the campaign.

Or are they?

On the surface, it may appear that a single rogue tweet or blog post has the power to derail an entire campaign or totally redefine the issues. But a closer look suggests there is more to it than meets the eye.

When that infamous tweet went out from a young Progressive Conservative staffer questioning Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith’s reasons for not having children, dozens of Wildrose supporters were patrolling the Twitterverse waiting for just such a gaffe.

Tweet uproar

The uproar that greeted the ‘fertility tweet,’ was swift and sizable. The Wildrose pounced on it and connected the staffer back to their chief rival, the PCs’ Alison Redford. What followed was a brisk response from Tory ‘fixers’ condemning the tweet, a hasty resignation by the staffer and a humble apology from Redford directly to Smith.

For her part, Smith issued a very personal statement revealing her struggles with fertility and emerged from the whole incident with grace and newfound sympathy.

It may seem that the whole incident just sprang up out of nowhere. Chances are good, though, that at least some of this was anticipated. What followed the offending tweet was a hair-trigger reaction.

Any good campaign assesses its strengths and weaknesses in advance and prepares for an attack.  It’s likely the Wildrose had considered the possibility of questions on this front, given the party’s appeal to the ‘family values’ crowd.

Journalists, vigilant for signs of conflict on social media, ran a story the next day with quotes from other mothers and families who had struggled with infertility. Smith was showered with praise for her bravery.

PC ads take risk

It’s interesting to note the PC television ads appearing after the incident week in support of the announcement of 140 family care clinics begin with Redford pointing out that she is both the premier and a parent. This would seem to be a risky statement given the recent uproar, but party strategists must have decided it was worth the risk.

The second issue surfaced when a blog post by a self-described feminist and gay rights advocate wrote a personal account of joining the Wildrose. She says she  discovered a ‘hidden agenda’ in support of ‘conscience rights.’ These are the proposed rights of various public servants, like doctors, pharmacists and marriage commissioners, to refuse to provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs.

This quickly turned volatile, evoking fears of restricted access to abortions, birth control and refusals to perform gay marriages. Various Twitter accounts sprang into action in response to the blog post, sharing it widely.

Demand ignored

The original blogger took to Twitter until the wee hours, fending off attacks from Wildrose. She then went on the offensive and demanded a definitive ‘yes or no’ answer from Smith on conscience rights, which never materialized.

Predictably, watchful journalists picked up the story, and Smith has since been forced to discuss the issue publicly. It’s likely they were prepared to defend the policy, but the blog post may have pushed it into the open sooner than planned.

Despite being caught off-guard, the Wildrose is still more skilled at responding than the PCs. Things took an embarrassing turn when, after initially agreeing to an interview with a reporter on conscience rights, Redford changed her mind and cancelled. An aide sent an email saying, ‘I have discussed with our team and unfortunately, we are going to hold off on approaching this particular subject.’

Redford waited until a later interview with a national newspaper to say she found the Wildrose position on conscience rights ‘frightening.’ Her original answer wasn’t quite clear in the story, which has since been updated online with a more definitive position opposing conscience rights.

Not responding quickly enough or being vague so as not to alienate anyone is a luxury afforded the frontrunner. It doesn’t work when you are the party struggling to regain lost ground. Perhaps the Tories are in unfamiliar territory these days.

Revolutionary? Not yet.

The reality is that as much as the social media enthusiasts (myself included) like to talk about the revolutionary nature of Twitter and other social networks, there is a lot of ‘old school’ political strategy at work here.

With renewed hype and a different band of haters, the Twittersphere is just a new medium for a familiar song. And some of the same tunes keep playing over and over again.

The mainstream media also continues to provide the same background beat. Where initially they may have felt threatened by social media, they are now in the business of mining the social network chatter for stories. They filter for their audience by selecting which stories to bring to light. As long as the majority of people can’t be bothered with social media or are plain disgusted by the tone of the conversations (things do get nasty), the media will continue to sift and decide which political songs get played.

Politics might offer up a new song list if more people got involved online and tried to change the nasty tone of the debate. Instead, good people continue to opt out in disgust. And this is nothing new.

Jody MacPherson is an Accredited Business Communicator with 25 years in public relations. A graduate of Carleton University, in the last decade, she has been working mainly in the not-for-profit and public sector, specializing in social media and digital communication.

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