For the London Free Press – September 24, 2007
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Facebook and similar social network sites will change election campaigns and create new avenues for social movements and political action.
When browsing on Facebook in early September, you could find more than 54 groups dedicated to the re-election of the Ontario Liberal Party, as well as numerous others demanding Dalton McGuinty be removed from office. More and more provincial candidates have official profiles or groups online, where supporters can gather, share opinions and organize information rallies and fundraising events.
This is not just an Ontario election issue. The proliferation of online campaigning has reached a fever pitch in the U.S., where all but one Democratic presidential candidate and four of their Republican counterparts have profiles or groups.
It seems that the youth vote, targeting first-time voters and those in their mid-twenties, would rather the candidate come knocking online, than at their front doors.
Facebook has become the accessible way to reach a large number of potential voters at little or no expense. Once members join a group, they can invite their entire friend list to the group, enabling the candidate, party or their message to reach more people, with little effort from the group creator, or the candidate.
The online forum introduces some dangers as well. It’s difficult to track who is responsible for the site and it is often unclear whether candidates are even aware of a group or page.
The credibility of an online source such as a Facebook group is still relatively low and until more candidates start using the technology, and start writing and contributing to their own pages, it may remain unreliable.
The candidates — or more accurately, their campaign offices — often do make official use, providing pictures and documents with the candidates’ position on issues, and replying to messages from supporters.
Elections Canada specifies the types of “volunteer labour” a candidate can accept, and there is a chance that should a Facebook Group provide commercial value to the candidate, it would have to be reported as an expense.
This has not been confirmed, but as recently as April of this year, Elections Canada announced it would be investigating social network sites, and their impact on advertising, organization of fundraising events and other functions performed by the online community and whether that provided a commercial service, or financial benefit to the candidates.
Social network sites have certainly added a new source of information for voters, and a new outlet for candidates to reach the youth demographic, and reach people in remote areas that may not be on the campaign trail.
It remains to be seen what actual impact the groups and sites have on the results of the election, and whether it will draw more voters.
Regardless of its final impact, it has provided an early opportunity to get the platform and messages out to the masses, and may be a means to focus election debates on those issues that seem most important to group members and those online.