Federal parties get a Facebook fail

It takes more than an online presence to pump up interest in disengaged youth

Politicians wooing the two million young adults eligible to vote in next month's federal election are polishing their Facebook and Twitter street cred, but there isn't much "liking" going on from that vast pool of voters -- who are statistically the least interested in voting on May 2.

The smart phones in the pockets of just about every young adult should mean instant political access to young voters. But more than halfway through the campaign, it seems the parties have yet to put the mobile in mobilization.

One party, the Conservatives, even found itself accused this week of trying to suppress youth voting by challenging the validity of 700 advance ballots cast at the University of Guelph.

After the party's request was rejected by Elections Canada, the Tories made a point of stressing that they want young people to get involved in the democratic process.

But critics say no party has managed to tap into that vast pool of potential voters -- youth -- who generally sit on their hands come election time.

"Yes, (the parties) all have Twitter; yes, they have Facebook. But they're not doing anything to reach out to people,'' says Internet strategist and technology commentator Jesse Hirsh, 36.

"They just expect people to come to them. And quite frankly, they're boring and for the most part irrelevant to most young people.''

The result for the politicians is lost votes. The result is potentially worse for youth as parties spend more time, and federal cash, on policies that older people might like and that younger people will eventually have to pay for.

In the 2008 federal election, only 37 per cent of Canadian youth between the ages of 18 and 24 cast ballots, compared to 65 per cent of 55- to 64-year-olds.

That reality is reflected in the issues that dominate the party platforms in this campaign: home care, health care, pensions. As long as Ottawa has a budget deficit, dollars spent on those priorities in the next Parliament risk being added to the national debt.

So youth have a stake in this election. But the parties are struggling to make that case to them.

Parties are using technology to detail their polices, scrutinize their opponents on the daily hustings and to attack each other, but they're not using it to actually interact with those who use it most, says Hirsh.

The Green Party launched an iPhone app this week, following closely on the heels of the NDP's recent launch, and every party leader has their own Twitter account, but critics say the constrained use of social media is shaping up to miss the first-time vote entirely.

New Democrat supporters can request lawn signs, sign up to volunteer and receive party messages. They can scan a barcode on party posters to call up links to Facebook events, or text to hear messages from leader Jack Layton.

But overall, party officials are not getting the message, say critics.

"What we've seen is (that) none of the political parties are stepping up to the challenge and engaging with youth directly,'' says 24-year-old Emily Jubenvill, volunteer co-ordinator with getyourvoteon.ca, a non-partisan website with the slogan: "Because the world is run by those who show up.''

U.S. President Barack Obama tapped into the power of social media for his hugely successful 2008 campaign. Obama's savvy, techno-strategy included campus youth rallies, celebrity endorsements, online donations and cellphone ring tones that saw a huge dividends in donations and a 2.2 million jump in youth votes on polling day.

Watchers don't expect the same north of the border next month.

"(The leaders) are so deluded into really believing they are social media savvy, that I suspect all of them ... believe that they are carrying on Obama's legacy. And that is the tragedy, that it couldn't be further from the truth,'' Hirsh says.

There are 2,127,394 eligible voters between 18 and 24, says Elections Canada spokeswoman Susan Friend.

"The disturbing thing is not only are young people voting at lower levels than they were 30 to 40 years ago, but they are less inclined to become active voters as they grow older,'' she adds.

A January report by the agency on youth electoral engagement suggests youth tend not to identify with any of the parties, are less likely to view voting as a civic duty, prefer more direct political participation through demonstrations and are affected by the changing nature of how political information is communicated and acquired.

This week, Elections Canada took out banner ads targeting youth on YouTube, Facebook and MySpace, but the agency doesn't have its own Twitter feed or Facebook page.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May finds herself, out of necessity, at the forefront of digital democracy.

Excluded from the televised debates, May created a virtual podium where she simultaneously tweeted, live blogged and offered commentary via several media websites.

The party has also been live-streaming all of May's events from the Vancouver Island riding where she has spent most of the campaign, says Camille Labchuk, her 27-year-old deputy director of communications.

Despite the dismal showing by official parties, Tara Mahoney, 27, says she's not ready to count the young vote out yet.

"You never know how these things can go viral and before you know it, people are getting out there just because they're getting messages on their phone,'' says Mahoney, who's organizing an "Apathy is Dead'' party in Vancouver as co-founder of the Vancouver-based Gen Why Media Project.

"There's no way to test that, it might just be a spur of the moment thing. That's what we're trying to do, is get that momentum going.''

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