Leaders on Social Media

The Digital Battleground: How Effectively are the Leaders Engaging Online?

Canadians are global leaders in the amount of time we spend online. We look at more cat pictures, read more blogs, post on Twitter, and browse more YouTube videos on average than the majority of the world. A recent study by comScore found that we spend an average of 36.3 hours online every month. That is higher than both the United States and Great Britain.  We also spend 5.1 more hours watching video online than our American counterparts and our mobile phone subscriptions are up five per cent in the past year to 24 million. This means that four out of every five mobile users in Canada own a smartphone.

Now this isn’t all that surprising considering the modern day smartphone was created right here in Waterloo, Ontario. We have long been considered early adopters of technology, and more importantly, new forms of social media. The same thing however cannot be said for our political leaders.

Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair, and Elizabeth May are all taking the same approach online: be cautious, post a few quotes on Twitter, ask for support on Facebook, share a few pictures on Instagram, and spread their most recent advertisement on YouTube. While they are more active across most platforms than ever before, their tactics have become stale and uninteresting to the average internet user. What is surprising about this lack of innovative thinking is that the influential power of the internet during political campaigns is not novel.


It is hard to forget the now famous picture of President Obama in tears in front of his campaign team after his first election in 2009. The President would later go on record to say that he was overcome by emotion because of how influential his team was to his campaign. Their secret sauce? They used the internet unlike ever before in a political campaign. They raised $500 million online from 3 million donors, most in increments of less than $100. They organized 35,000 groups through the website My Barack Obama. They posted 1,800 videos to YouTube, which garnered 50 million views. And they made Barack Obama the most liked page on Facebook.[1]

While this cannot be directly compared to Canada since we are dealing with a smaller population, our leaders and their social media campaigns are nowhere near the level of Obama’s campaign team sophistication from six years ago.

So what are our Canadian leaders doing? Do they have a “secret sauce”?

Stephen Harper:

  • Campaign synopsis: “I Support” – in his social media posts, Harper and his campaign team include a button that says “I support ____” (Ex: “I support more jobs” or “I support the balanced budget”). When you click the button you are directed to a registration form that places you on a mailing list. Once you are on the list his campaign team sends you targeted messages to your email inbox.
  • What is he trying differently? Harper used a sponsored post on Instagram. This backfired as users found it intrusive and inappropriate. Elsewhere he is focusing his efforts on television advertisements that are being shared via YouTube.

Justin Trudeau:

  • Campaign synopsis: “Support Real Change” – sponsored tweets on Facebook and Twitter ask you to share your name and email address with Justin Trudeau. Once the campaign team receives your email, you will receive targeted messages from the Liberal Leader to your email inbox.
  • What is he trying differently? Trudeau is taking a lot of selfies with his supporters. He is using these selfies and his video advertisements in an effort to showcase his personality. He is also promoting the trend “#elxn42” on twitter in an effort to increase the visibility of his content online.

Thomas Mulcair:

  • Campaign synopsis: Mulcair operates his social media accounts much like a normal user. He does not have a call to action nor does he ask for support. His posts generally include a #Ready4Change hashtag and a short quote or a link to a recent news article.
  • What is he trying differently? Mulcair and his team have placed an emphasis on pictures with quotes or call to action lines embedded in them. He is trying to make posts easy to retweet or share by making them light on text.

Elizabeth May:

  • Campaign synopsis: With a small following, the Green Party is taking a different approach to attract new supporters online. On Twitter, Elizabeth May has a “Question of the Day” where she answers a chosen question from one of her followers. She also uses the platform to engage in debates she is excluded from. Most posts are quotes or highlights that direct the reader back to the campaign website.
  • What is she trying differently? See above. (Question of the Day & debate engagement)

The leaders are by no means absent from social media as you can see. With that being said, how are their online campaigns translating into new followers or fans?



The four party leaders have only seen a moderate bump in online popularity since the writ was dropped on August 2nd. Justin Trudeau is the highest of the four with 37,652 new fans on Facebook and 31,041 new followers on twitter. In a nation of 35.16 million people, where four out of every five own a smartphone with access to the internet, this number is far too low. These statistics make it abundantly clear that the leaders are falling flat on social media.

While there are risks to creating an innovative online campaign, history has proven there is a high reward if executed properly. In what is being dubbed the closest election campaign in recent history, not a single leader is doing anything innovative to attract Canada’s ever-growing network of web crawlers, many of whom are young, undecided voters.

Perhaps the issue is that a majority of this demographic just don’t want to engage with politicians or public policy issues online. In that case they might want to ask Toronto City Councillor Norm Kelly for some advice on how he gets thousands of retweets every day. By admitting his love for rap music and local Toronto star Drake, he has attracted a new legion of followers who hang on to his every word. From a post on municipal garbage collection to a tweet about a recent rap lyric, people care about what he has to say. A recent tweet of Norm’s is perhaps the best advice one can give to our federal leaders: