Social media change the landscape for politicians, reporters

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I have 125 friends on my Facebook account, most of whom I actually know, and many of whom are actually friends. But Stephen Harper, now there's a popular guy - as of Tuesday 38,852 people "like" him for various reasons on Facebook, including his Christmas-card photo.

On his profile page, it says he's prime minister of Canada, and that his hometown is Calgary in the, um, "state" of Alberta (Facebook apparently doesn't allow for provinces). Harper also has a Twitter account, with 80,268 followers and 301 tweets to his credit as of yesterday.

Well, not him personally -he has a country to run - but the Prime Minister's Office, putting up their communiques and notifications in cyberspace. Now, Tony Clement, the industry minister, there's a tweeter for you: 3 p.m., announced copyright policy; 8:30 p.m., saved woman from drowning.

Harper is also on Flickr, and he's got his own channel on YouTube ( youtube.com/pmharper)with 1,120 subscribers. Finally, he has 21,212 subscribers to his cyberservice, pmupdate.com,which puts up all his virtual announcements. No word about MySpace or LinkedIn.

None one of these information platforms, known as social media, existed only a decade ago. It's a kind of proof of Moore's law, posited by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, that computer power doubles every 18 months. There's more capacity on your laptop or smartphone than in the onboard computers that took a man to the moon.

It is less than seven years since Mark Zuckerberg and his undergraduate friends at Harvard founded Facebook, and it now has 600 million subscribers worldwide. Facebook had no trouble raising a $1-billion private equity placement last week with Goldman Sachs, which placed a value of $50 billion on the company, which is expected to go public next year. If Goldman says so, it must be worth $50 billion. Zuckerberg, still in his 20s, is the world's youngest billionaire and is the subject of a highly entertaining movie about his startup, The Social Network, that's very much in the running for several Oscars.

The reason politicians like Harper are using these new media platforms is that so many of the voters are using them. Canadians are the most connected people on the planet -according to the CBC, 68 per cent of us are on the Internet. Maybe it has something to do with the weather -when it's minus 20, as it is in Eastern Canada this week, it's too cold to go out.

The same CBC report estimates that YouTube gets 21 million visits from Canadians every month. As for Facebook, it has 17 million Canadian subscribers -more than half the population, compared with 41 per cent of Americans on Facebook.

Twitter is estimated to have about a third as many subscribers, around 200 million, as Facebook, which would mean something like five or six million Canadians tweet. (I have my own anecdotal experience of the web: Policy Options, the magazine of which I'm editor, has 3,000 subscribers to the print edition but 100,000 page views per month online, or 1 million article downloads per year).

The benefit to politicians of using new media is obvious -they can get their message out for free, and unfiltered by the mainstream media. "PM announces Red Tape Commission," Harper's social-media platforms announced the other day. Gripping. You can see it on Flickr.

This multiplicity of platforms has resulted in the multi-tasking of mainstream reporting. Print and television journalists now blog and tweet, and post their musings or photos by computer or phone to their Facebook accounts. The problem with this stuff is that none of it is ever edited or even seen by another set of eyes for accuracy or taste.

At a certain point, it isn't even about the story anymore; it's about feeding the Beast. And make no mistake: the Beast must be fed.

This month, with Parliament out on recess, we've had a lot of feeding the Beast, which has nothing to do with real news. Tories up eight points in a poll? An election must be imminent. Michael Ignatieff on campaign-style tour. Is there any other kind? PM makes partisan speech at fifth-anniversary rally. Duh!

Tories launch attack ads, Liberals push back with their own, as election fever mounts. Ottawa, including the press gallery, needs adult supervision. A flight of negative and response ads is not news unless there's a serious media buy behind it. But the Tories and Liberals releasing ads on YouTube is free media, and commentators talking about it is known as earned media. It's an old party trick for free publicity, and the media always fall for it when they should be looking for the ad buy, saying show us the money. But it isn't news.

It's just feeding the Beast.

 
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