COMMENTARY: In the midst of blockades, online sentiment towards both major parties turns sour

Anti-pipeline blockades and protests continue across Canada as chiefs meet with federal, B.C. politicians
WATCH: (Feb. 27, 2020) Blockades and protests aimed at stopping the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in northern B.C. Continue, despite talks aimed at ending the dispute. Richard Zussman reports.

In the weeks since blockades began across Canada on Feb. 6 in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline project, online sentiment towards the two major federal political parties has turned sharply negative, according to the Ipsos Canadian Political Atlas.

Meanwhile, the volume of discussion seems to have increased.

At the time of writing, online sentiment towards the Liberal party was negative in 179 of Canada’s 338 ridings, and likely negative in 65 of them. Forty-two ridings remained neutral, and sentiment was likely positive in only nine ridings. Forty-three ridings did not have enough online data to accurately measure sentiment.

READ MORE: B.C. gives Horgan poor marks on handling of pipeline dispute, according to poll

The negative view may reflect growing frustration with the Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the situation, which has brought rail traffic to a halt across the country.

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The opposition Conservatives, who have been critical of the government’s response while in the middle of a leadership race, actually fare even worse than the Liberals. Sentiment toward the Conservatives was negative in 274 ridings and likely negative in 10. Five ridings were neutral, and there were no ridings where sentiment was positive. Forty-nine ridings did not have online data to accurately measure sentiment.

Negativity about the Conservatives may be due to their response to the protests, as well as overall reaction to the ongoing battle to succeed current leader Andrew Scheer.

Volume of discussion about the two major political parties has increased. Discussion of the Liberals was up by more than 30 per cent in 282 ridings, while discussion about the Conservatives increased by more than 30 per cent in 173 ridings. In both cases, most of the increased discussion was in Ontario and British Columbia, where the bulk of the protests are happening.

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These negative numbers for both parties are the highest we have seen. The data suggests that Canadians are engaged on social media about the protests and other political issues, and they are not impressed by the response from the major parties.

Indeed, the third-place NDP is not experiencing anywhere near the negative sentiment, nor the volume, that the two major parties are.

Sentiment about the NDP was negative or likely negative in only 37 ridings, and positive or likely positive in 203 ridings. Volume about the NDP was up in only 17 ridings, primarily in British Columbia. Some Canadians may be looking to the NDP for a different voice in the debate on how Canada can reconcile concerns of some in the Wet’suwet’en community and their supporters, with the reality that Canada depends heavily on its rail system for economic prosperity, as well as the rule of law.

READ MORE: Wet’suwet’en matriarchs get long-awaited seats at table with hereditary chiefs, ministers

What remains to be seen is whether this online discussion translates into a loss of support for the parties more broadly.

An Ipsos poll last week found that 63 per cent of Canadians support police intervention to end rail blockades. The same poll found that 43 per cent of Canadians approve of the performance of the Liberal government under Trudeau’s leadership, two points lower than it was heading into election day last October.

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The issues surrounding the blockades appear far from being resolved, and Canadians will continue to look to the major parties — and their leaders — for solutions to a very difficult problem. Coupled with an increase in western alienation after the Oct. 21, 2019, general election and the increasing global concern about COVID-19 worldwide, it’s no wonder Canadians are looking to their leaders for answers.

If social media discussion is any guide, they aren’t liking what they see, either.

The Ipsos Canadian Political Atlas measures sentiment and volume of social media discussion on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and others, using machine learning to identify and classify social media posts based on an algorithm. Ipsos used it in the 2019 election to accurately measure sentiment and volume during the leaders’ debates and throughout the campaign.

Gregory Jack is Vice President, Ipsos Public Affairs (Canada)