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Pandemic election: The role of social media strategies amid COVID-19

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Bakhtawar Khan excitedly waited, her friend holding two cellphones and a camera, for her turn to get a photo with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

The 20-year-old, like most people showing up to political rallies across the country, wanted to share the image with friends and followers on social media.

Read more: TikTok, videogames and more: How candidates are getting out the vote this election

“I feel like a lot of people are telling me not to vote for NDP because it will be a split with the Liberals,” Khan said. “But the way I look at social media, I don’t think it will be true this year.”

Khan, like people across the country, says she gets all her political and election information from social media.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been spending even more time on their social media and all the political parties are hoping to take advantage to tap directly into their voter base. But just because someone likes or shares a political post doesn’t necessarily translate at the polls.

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Experts across the country are watching to see which party’s social media strategy paid off the most on election day.

Half of Canadians, regardless of age, use Facebook weekly to get news on current events and politics, said Oksana Kishchuk, a consultant with Abacus Data.

Read more: Traditional election campaign methods still key in the digital age: experts

Social media has become a vital player in building support. It’s not just about posting either, she said, as parties have to consider good photos, snappy clips and current trends.

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“Mastering these techniques will be important,” Kishchuk said.

As election day comes closer, she says all three main parties are taking the strategy of “target and spend.” In the last week or so, each has spent $400,000 to $600,000 on advertisements on Facebook and Instagram. The Liberals and NDP are using that cash to share messages focusing mainly on their own strengths, while the Conservatives have put a focus on Justin Trudeau, she said.

The most recent polling by Abacus shows Liberals in the lead with their social media strategy, Kishchuk said, but impressions of Singh and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole rose significantly during the election.

In particular, Kishchuk said she’s interested to see the outcome of the New Democrats focus on TikTok to connect with younger voters.

“Very few (users) are using TikTok as a main source for news,” she added.

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Tori Rivard says she joined the app because of Singh after seeing “a lot of hype” from the leader through her friends’ social media accounts. Now, she is excited about the party and even showed up to a campaign stop in Ontario.

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“I think it’s super important especially with millennials and gen Z ? because social media is how we get all of our information pretty much,” Rivard said. “So (Singh) being engaged on there makes us more likely to seek out more information elsewhere.”

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Tamara Small, a professor of political science at the University of Guelph, said she thinks TikTok as a campaign strategy is more of a “stunt” and will be less influential at the ballot box.

“As a tool of persuasion, it’s a bunch of people who cannot vote, and a bunch of people who, if they can vote, don’t likely vote,” she said. “So, thank goodness it’s free because you wouldn’t want to spend money there.”

Small also cautioned that social media can get party faithful excited but has less impact on flipping people’s partisanship.

“The whole thing is a big echo chamber,” she said.

“If you are going to go on social media you are unlikely to follow the leader of the party that’s ‘the worst’ because why would you do that to yourself.”

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Social media is a double-edged sword for political parties, said Kim Speers, a professor at the University of Victoria. It has the potential to garner new support by sharing what the party stands for

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“It also has the potential to decrease support if negative (information) is found on a current candidate’s social media account ? or if the messaging is or can be negatively misinterpreted,” she said.

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Both the Conservatives and the New Democrats removed candidates or saw them resign because of their social media history.

All parties are taking a hybrid approach, she said, which includes social media ads, videoconferencing and in-person campaigning. She said NDP are focusing on new social media platforms, the Liberals have a more traditional approach with things like Facebook ads and the Conservatives are using a virtual approach, with online question-and-answer sessions and rallies.

The mix is important, Speers said, because when it comes to social media the parties “may have followers but they need voters more.”

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