How the Party Leaders Use Twitter: Digital Diplomacy and E-Democracy

From September 15, 2014 to January 19, 2015 I collected all tweets from @PMHarper (the English language account of Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Steven Harper), @ThomasMulcair (NDP leader Thomas Mulcair) and @JustinTrudeau (Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau). I wanted to know what topics these accounts covered and whether they had more of an internal or external focus (looking in at Canada and issues facing Canadians or looking out at the world and Canada’s place internationally).

I found that @PMHarper focuses on international issues while @ThomasMulcair and @JustinTrudeau focus on local, provincial and federal policy issues. I reported these findings in a Globe and Mail article published on Feb. 5, 2015.

Notes on methods and other comments

Silly girl, posting tweets is for staff.

Having worked for a Member of Parliament in her Ottawa office I know that politicians and their staff each take different approaches to dealing with social media. Some MPs make all their own tweets, others work with their staff to create a pre-determined schedule and others rely on staff to make tweets on their behalf. I didn’t ask the party leaders what they do, and while I have personal hunches about how it plays out that is not the point of this analysis.

I was interested in the messages that get sent to followers of specific accounts, regardless of who crafts those messages. If I were studying press releases or even speeches there would be value in understanding the content of the messages that get sent out attached to the names/titles of those leaders. The same is true with Twitter. This is content coming from their offices which makes it (in my mind) interesting. Sure, knowing who wrote the tweet, who came up with the tweeting strategy, and who has final say on what goes out are also interesting questions but I think they are interesting for different reasons.

Why not Green Party leader Elizabeth May (@ElizabethMay)?

I did a small sample of May’s many many tweets (she made nearly 3000 in the same amount of time the others made 200-300 each) and the vast majority are replies to other people which means that topically they are often pretty ambiguous. In other words, had I done the full set, the results would not have been as insightful for her because she uses it so differently from the other party leaders. It would end up not being a fair comparison.

How did you collect and analyse the tweets?

I used Twitter’s public API (specifically GET statuses/user_timeline). This means that I did not collect any tweets that were made but later deleted. I created a coding schedule which is essentially a list of the things I was looking for and the categories tweets could fall in (for example, international, national or provincial/local focus). Next I read each and every tweet and “coded” them which means I decided which categories they fell into. If I were to publish these findings in an academic journal I would probably want to have someone else also code each tweet so we could compare our answers and calculate the reliability of this approach. But for now, I am asking you to trust my interpretation of what constitutes “national” and what does not. Once I’d done that I had a nice spreadsheet containing all my data, I used that to create a series of graphs which I used to interpret the data. You can see some Globe and Mail versions in the article.

Why does this even matter? This isn’t particularly newsworthy or profoundly deep analysis.

Journalists and others in the media industry tend to focus on the now, the new and the exciting. This is very important for informing the citizenry on the issues of the day and making sure the public has access to the most important political information at that time. Us academics, particularly social scientists, often focus on abstract and/or fundamental social trends over a much longer term (and most of our work rarely goes beyond the boundaries of academia).

What is missing is a reflection on that middle ground. Everyday politics is actually a huge portion of where public opinion is developed and where citizens get to interact (even if it is one-way) with their political representatives. Yes, elections and scandals and policy announcements matter. But so does the more subtle framing of what issues should be talked about and what issues a leader and their party want to engage with or promote. And yes, understanding what makes the leaders act as they do (i.e. a much deeper analysis) is intriguing and potentially very valuable. But that doesn’t mean mapping out the contours of social media use isn’t.

Here is the text of the article (you’ll need to follow the link above to check out the graphs):

In an era of digital diplomacy and e-democracy, politicians are expected to play their political role both online and offline. Twitter is one tool which politicians around the world have embraced as a way to connect with those they represent and broadcast information to the public. Canada’s major political party leaders are no different – and the leaders’ different approaches say a lot about how they communicate in the months ahead of a federal election.

A political party leader is expected to be vocal on any and all political issues facing their constituents. The leader is looked to to set their party’s agenda, to communicate issues to the public, to garner a following, and to understand the needs of that following and of Canadians more broadly. Of course the leader has many other responsibilities, these are just some of the main ones which Twitter is particularly good at facilitating.

Canada’s political party leaders are all active on Twitter but their patterns of use are not the same. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is known for her prolific Twitter account. Her 20,600 tweets since joining Twitter in September 2008 is nearly seven times as many as either the Prime Minister’s English-language account (@PMHarper) or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s (@ThomasMulcair) all-time totals, and over three times as many as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau). But even among the three party leaders who tweet considerably less, there are telling differences.

By the numbers

From Sept. 18, 2014, when members returned to Parliament after the summer break, to Jan. 17, 2015, @PMHarper has made 283 tweets. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau both have only one account which posts both English and French tweets, with 288 and 574 tweets made respectively. Notably both leaders often opt to post direct translations of tweets, so the following analysis considers unique tweets only (193 for Mr. Mulcair and 319 for Mr. Trudeau).

Over the course of the fall there are some expected ebbs and flows. (See chart above.) The start of the session prompted all three accounts to post multiple tweets a day which slowed as the weeks passed. On the week following Christmas, all three accounts refrained from posting and on weekends there were often, but not always, fewer tweets made. Mr. Trudeau’s account was the only one from a leader to consistently tweet at relatively stable levels throughout most of the sampling period. For example, Mr. Trudeau’s account made many tweets about the by-elections in November when the accounts of Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair were both relatively inactive on Twitter.

The differences in topics of tweets highlight the biggest differences in the leaders’ approach to Twitter (see above chart). About 25 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets had an international focus, for example, the threat of the Islamic State, or United Nations and G20 meetings, while only 3 per cent of his posts had a provincial or local community focus. Issues facing Canadians broadly such as economic, social and other issues together make up only 19 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets. In contrast, 34 per cent of Mr. Mulcair’s and 41 per cent of Mr. Trudeau’s tweets focused on economic, social and other issues facing Canadians with only 11 per cent each focusing on international issues.

Mr. Trudeau matches this focus on international issues with equal numbers of tweets about provincial or community issues. Mr. Trudeau’s tweets span a wider range of policy issues and are more evenly spread across areas as compared to either other leader.

Finally, for all three leaders a large proportion (between 34 and 39 per cent) of tweets make reference to no specific policy issue but instead to meetings they attended and events of the day. For Mr. Harper these tweets often include condolence messages, greetings for a given holiday and references to sporting events. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau also include some of these messages but also tend to post photos from events and thank you notes to those they meet with.

Digital diplomacy vs. e-democracy

Mr. Harper’s use of Twitter can be thought of as in line with digital diplomacy. Digital diplomacy on a very basic level is the use of the Internet to solve foreign policy issues. @PMHarper is an account with an international focus and which tends to opt toward non-partisan statements. Expressing policy positions or promoting a policy agenda to the Canadian public does not appear to be a goal of the account. Instead, the aim seems to be more about establishing a presence online as a world leader and digitally demonstrating Canada’s connection to other nations.

Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, to varying degrees, appear to use Twitter more in line with e-democracy which is more about advancing a democracy than foreign affairs. Both accounts attempt to connect with Canadian citizens explicitly, for example by reminding them to vote, providing shareable content and sending thank you messages. Neither account maintains as large a focus on international issues at Mr. Harper, instead both put increased focus on social and other issues facing Canadians. Expressing views on policy and generating interest in, and engagement with, their respective parties are likely aims of these accounts.

Ultimately, Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau are all active social media users with something to gain from Twitter. The different strategies which drives their use can help others understand what they are signing up for when they click “follow.”

Globe and Mail


2 thoughts on “How the Party Leaders Use Twitter: Digital Diplomacy and E-Democracy

    • Elizabeth Dubois says:

      Good question, I don’t know. All three parties also have their own party accounts which are clearly partisan. The PMO also has some PMO specific social media (e.g. their YouTube channel) and other departments have clearly indicated non-partisan accounts. It is unclear to me, however, who runs each account at any given time. In other words, it could be the party during an election but the leader’s office during non-election periods and/or each of the leaders themselves at different times. All three accounts did retweet their parties’ respective tweets at least once during this sample which I suppose could put the partisanship thing into question.

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