It’s no secret that political parties use social media in a big way during elections — whether it’s to get their message across to the younger generation through flashy media posts, identify supporters, or monitor their popularity through likes and mentions.
Increasingly, however, parties have been using “social” in a much broader way, to up their public image, dig up dirt on the competition, and more.
“It’s illegal during elections to run an ad and have the ad not say it’s paid for by the candidate or the party, but that’s the only thing that’s illegal; everything else is a spin and social media free-for-all,” Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher told The Chronicle Herald.
The 2015 federal election and the current Nova Scotia provincial election have also proven that social media can be as much a hindrance as a help. Provincially, every party has lost candidates over questionable past social media posts.
The PCs dropped Dartmouth South candidate Jad Cmogorac after Twitter posts making light of date rape and police brutality against people of course were uncovered, the NDP lost Dartmouth East candidate Bill McEwen because of misogynistic comments made on an old website, and the Liberals dropped Pictou East candidate Matthew MacKnight over ableist comments made on social media in 2013.
According to a former Nova Scotia-based party insider, who spoke to The Chronicle Herald under the condition of anonymity, that’s all par for the course.
When vetting candidates, the source said, political parties will often look at past social media posts but sometimes, to the delight of their opponents, things are missed.
The source said that all year round parties have staff conducting social media research as part of their broader responsibilities, but Facebook and Twitter sleuthing really ramps up during elections.
When a questionable post or photo of an opposing candidate is unearthed, whether it’s released by the party or leaked to media or reliable supporters for distribution depends on the content.
“Something as innocuous as a potential candidate taking a different position to the leader of the party (is) not a huge deal but it can be somewhat awkward. Well then, the party just might point that out,” he said.
More salacious posts, however, tend to make it to the public in other ways.
As for the ethics of these sorts of tactics, Conacher said he believes the public has the right to know all the information available about a candidate.
“The voters decide if they think it’s important or not ,” he said.
Another tactic used by political parties regularly but amped up during election period, Conacher said, is a little more in the ethical grey area.
Parties often use multiple methods — from bots that automatically click news stories, to dummy accounts that like and share posts — to dupe algorithms so that more positive headlines make their way to the top of your news feed or news aggregator.
Conacher said he doesn’t think most people know how broadly these sorts of tactics are used.
“They’re not just creating fake news and turning it into a promoted post you see in your news feed, they’re actively trying to make sure what you see in your news feed or on Twitter is always good news,” he said.
“You win if the headlines say what you want them to say. You have changed the public’s opinion about what you are doing.”
When asked how the three main parties in Nova Scotia use social media during an election, beyond just promoting their message, the NDP did not respond and a Liberal spokesperson said the party does not share their strategies publicly.
Progressive Conservative spokesperson Jenni Edge would only say the party is active on social media and uses it as an important way to communicate with people all across the province.
“It has become increasingly powerful,” she said. “We’ve seen that highlighted in this campaign.”