Social Media May Not Be the Democratic Force We Thought It Was

On Federal Election Day, 2015, over 770,000 Tweets were sent out into the Twittersphere in Canada, but new data shows that the high volume of social media posts may not be reaching a new audience. Despite the early promise and the increased use of social media to discuss politics and policy issues, fewer Canadians have been joining the online conversation over the last two years.

Of late it seems that elections are said to be won in part because a certain politician is more adept at social media than his or her counterpart. Social media and its instantaneous, 24-7 two-way flow of news has also been cited as one of the reasons for the decline in print news.

With more and more people joining social media to engage in social, policy and political discussion (from 2010 to 2014 the number of Canadians doubled), some believed that social media and the increased access to information would improve transparency and understanding of the political process.

Social media promised to bring more voices into the political debate and foster greater accountability as more people could speak directly to officials, ultimately leading to a better democracy. Instead, it looks like there is a finite interest in discussing political and policy issues no matter what the medium. Over the last two years the number of Canadians joining the online discussion has stalled, despite a recent social media heavy Federal Election.

Most concerning may be the absence of new voices or original authors. From 2010 to 2014 the percentage of original authors on social media jumped from 8% to 16%. But since then the number has remained flat at 15%. While the levelling out of those who read, comment and share political comments and stories is somewhat disappointing, the lack of new authors means that we are not seeing a rise in new opinions. Instead, social media has given Canada’s political elite a new channel and we are seeing more online volume from the same people.

Perhaps these findings aren’t surprising as news outlets have always covered a variety of topics from sports to fashion to business in addition to political and government news. It may also mean that single-subject online publications or e-zines that focus only on politics have limited audience growth opportunity. For sure it means that those of us interested in greater public engagement in the political or policy making process have work to do, and that work goes well beyond a 140-character message to the same people who used to be in our rolodexes.

Election Tweet

Social Media Engagement Chart