COLUMN | SOCIAL STIRRUPS: Did social media win Trudeau the election?

Social Stirrups — Analyzing our online social world is a web-exclusive column, in which Kendra Nelson delves into the hidden meanings of our online social media world.  Read more of this column here. And check back soon for more bi-weekly content!



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New York Times recently deemed Canada “hip,” with Justin Trudeau’s rise to prime ministerial power. Trudeau is the down-to-Earth Canadian that we can all identify with. We’ve seen him as the snowboarding instructor, the amateur boxer, the family man. He essentially seduced America to reconsider their opinions toward Canadians. Could these dashing good looks be a coincidence?

Or is it possible that Justin Trudeau was specifically chosen to be the face that would ultimately garner our trust, our hearts, and our vote? Let’s think more deeply about how social media plays a factor in manipulating public opinion to sway votes, ideas, and ultimately the politics of our country.  

The year is 1960. Nixon and Kennedy square off in a competition to gain the political upper hand to win the Presidential election. Kennedy has an unfair advantage, however. Not only is he easy on the eyes, he is healthy next to a feverish, sweaty, Nixon. The audience that merely listened to the broadcast on radio generally thought Nixon would be deemed winner; however, with television viewers, Kennedy was champion.

Kennedy and Nixon face-off for the U.S. presidency in 1960.
Kennedy and Nixon face-off for the U.S. presidency in 1960.

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Jason Mittell explains that Kennedy, the first “made for TV” president, was born from the phenomenon called “emotional television.” TV had the power to resonate with people in a passionate and moving way, and was better able to connect to the people.

The moral of the story is that the combination of charisma, photo ops, and the emotive power of images on television, is said to play a significant — and sometimes precarious — role in politics.

If television has the ability to evoke strong emotional ties to certain politicians through campaign ads and photo ops, then what is to be said about the power of social media? What does this say about the way politicians interact with their voters in contemporary times?

“Such ads work to reinforce upbeat emotional associations for voters and hope to evoke positive visual imagery whenever a voter thinks about a candidate.”- Jason Mitchell

Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post ran an article by Reed Tucker entitled “Hunky Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the JFK Jr. of Canada.” Would it be too gregarious to state that social media won Justin Trudeau his campaign as television won JFK his presidency in the past?

It is clear that Trudeau was able to utilize social media to his advantage in the horse race coverage during the campaign. Just like JFK did with TV, Trudeau was able to harness his JFK-like good looks and Canadian values, and put them on display for the Internet, which is what resonates with the modern public sphere the most.

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Julian Ausserhofer and Axel Maireder conducted a study in Austria that sought to discover the effects of Twitter on national politics. They found that the majority of political debate on the social media platform came mainly from politicians, journalists, and experts in various fields. Although open participation from citizens was available, the findings suggest that the most influential tweets come from a central elite.

While this may seem like common sense, it is important to note that social media is often regarded as a space for citizens to have their opinions heard. However, the evidence suggests that social media sites may be housed under the same roof as every newspaper, TV channel, and other media presence that holds power over how a story is released. This means that citizens are still visiting CBC on the web as they did on television, rather than to seek alternative news sources.

“Those [politicians] who did participate in [social media] conversation, fared better off in image than politicians who did not. Trudeau took full advantage of this connection.”

On that note, the next finding was that politicians harnessed the power of Twitter mainly for the purposes of campaigning, promoting their image, and sharing information with the public. They do not use it to converse with the public; rather, they use it as a one-way dialogue, to promote their image further. However, those who did participate in conversation, fared better off in image than politicians who did not. Trudeau took full advantage of this connection.  

Perhaps the trend started with Obama taking particular interest in social media. From this graph, it’s clear that the effort was put in to uphold a strong presence on the Internet and bond with citizens in a new way. After two consecutive terms, Obama is still regarded highly from American citizens. Social media no doubt plays a role in that.

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Looking at the current American campaign, Bernie Sanders is rising in popularity. But how did he do this while enduring what his campaign calls a “Bernie blackout” (a lack of coverage compared to other delegates)? The answer: Bernie Sanders’s social media presence is astounding, and at a level never before seen in history. From Obama, to Trudeau, to Sanders, the use of social media amongst politicians in spreading their mandate, public image, and values is rising, along with their popularity among the citizenry.

Although social media has been an extensive tool that has completely reshaped our world, the driving force behind politics has not changed, but merely shifted to accommodate the new technology.

So coming back to the question of whether or not social media won Trudeau the election: perhaps not single handedly, but essentially yes. It did him a world of favours. With the ability to connect with the community on issues, provide trustworthy Canadian appeal, and establish his charming image on modern social media platforms, Trudeau definitely stood out amongst all the rest.