How social media can play a role in undermining political discourse

During the 2015 federal elections, the Conservative party coined a phrase that they thought would lead to utter disenchantment of Justin Trudeau –“he’s just not ready.” At the end of their central attack ad which showed a bunch of executives sitting around a table and discussing Justin Trudeau as if he were a candidate applying to a corporate job, they couldn’t help but tack on “great hair though!”

The Conservatives lost–badly. Of course, the reasons behind this included a lot of complicated and nuanced factors, but the Conservative party likely underestimated the celebrity power that Trudeau wielded both in Canada and around the world. And it wasn’t just his perceived charm or physical appearance; Trudeau’s campaign was being waged most heavily on an entirely different battleground –online.

Surely, the Conservatives understood the importance of engaging younger voters in the digital space, but they didn’t have the same intuition that the Liberal strategists did. And more importantly, Harper didn’t have the same media savvy as Trudeau nor a personality that attracted shares on social media. Many people scoff at Trudeau’s online popularity, but it clearly paid off. During his campaign, he gained more Twitter followers than the other five candidates combined and constantly underlined the importance of engaging people online. A great deal of his strategies were built from the revolutionary tactics of Obama that focused on mobilizing voters on a micro level. The two had such large online followings that their introduction caused a media frenzy. Remember when the Internet “shipped” the bromance between Trudeau and Obama based on a few selfies they took?

Right now, Justin Trudeau has almost five million likes on his Facebook page, and the number keeps growing. Compared to the social media following that Obama has amassed (around 55 million on Facebook), this probably doesn’t seem like a huge deal. But when taking into consideration that Stephen Harper’s page totals in at fewer than 300 thousand likes, it’s clear that the viral presence of Trudeau is entirely unprecedented in Canada, and to some extent, around the world.

What Stephen Marche defines in a Bloomberg article as a ‘ virocracy’ –governing through social media –is an experience unknown to any Canadian until Trudeau came into office. It started as a campaign strategy. But until this day, articles about him hugging pandas, appearing shirtless, having a great butt, serving as “eye candy” for Ivanka Trump, overpowering Trump’s weird handshake, and challenging Matthew Perry to a boxing match dominate a lot of “political” discourse that happens through social media. And sometimes, this is a great thing. People who are completely unengaged with Canadian politics can get an introductory lesson on the basic figures and happenings at play. There’s a basic –very basic – level of understanding necessary to laugh at a political meme.

The crux of the problem is when conversations stop there. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people having valuable discussions about Trudeau’s policies or what happens on a day-to-day basis in the House (and no, Elbowgate doesn’t count). But these people are often already politically engaged, and they discuss in their own politically engaged circles. Through the democratized online platforms that we engage in daily, the trending topics revolving around our PM are often dominated by fluff, or what academics and journalists refer to as “soft news.” There are substantive bills being passed and promises being kept and broken on a weekly basis. If we drown this out by making humorous, cuddly, memeable and PR-friendly photo ops the dominant conversation we risk undermining the baseline of what passes as political discourse.

It’s time to stop talking about his butt because it gives way to personalizing politics, and basing our votes solely on the intuitive impulses that politicians impress on us. I’m sure the line “He just tells it like it is” sends chills down some of our backs and triggers bursts of pride for others. The more of a celebrity that Justin Trudeau is, the more opportunity we give to people like Kevin O’ Leary or Kellie Leitch winning the Conservative leadership race. Who else could directly compete on the viral platform, where personality means more than policy? And this isn’t to say that only Trudeau’s media team actively works to make him little more than the endless stream of sound bites and the right photo opportunities. It’s also the fault of the media for writing content that exclusively features people’s reactions to our prime minister’s backside, and the fault of us all for sharing and re-sharing these stories.

Even the Conservatives couldn’t help focusing on his hair.


 Featured photo courtesy of Vogue 

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