Women ejected from Conservative rally a social media stumble, experts say

There are many positive ways Canada's political parties could be using social media on the campaign trail, but ejecting people from rallies on the basis of a Facebook photo is not one of them, social media experts say.

There are many positive ways Canada’s political parties could be using social media on the campaign trail, but ejecting people from rallies on the basis of a Facebook photo is not one of them, social media experts say.

The Conservatives and their social media practices came under fire Tuesday after two young women were ordered to leave a Stephen Harper event in London, Ont., on the weekend.

An official claimed to have learned via Facebook that the pair had links to the Liberals, likely referring to a photo with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff rally that’s on one of the women’s profile page, the London Free Press reported.

Since the campaign began, Conservatives’ social media use has ranged from positive community building and social networking to “the sort of darker, more nefarious, electoral black-ops side of things,” said Josh Greenberg, an associate communications professor at Carleton University.

The way parties use social media is representative of their broader communications strategy, Greenberg said, and the incident in London, as described, is just another example of the Conservative tactic of limiting access to the leader.

“Everything is so tightly scripted that this sort of online, digital surveillance becomes a technique for ensuring that the risk of having operatives from other parties or protesters or anybody who may not cheer and applaud at everything [Harper] says – to keep those people out as much as possible.”

People have to register in advance to attend Conservative rallies, but that’s solely because demand exceeds room at the venues, Tory minister John Baird told a news conference Tuesday. The public is usually barred from campaign news conferences as well, also for reasons of space, added Baird, whose own event on the weekend was crashed by a political activist.

“This is the middle of an election campaign,” Baird said. “You don’t invite the public to come in here and ask questions at your press conferences.”

The Conservatives have issued an apology to the two women involved in the London incident, but said they could not confirm their version of events.

Both the NDP and the Liberals said they do not screen people coming to their events.

“There’s no sign up, photo ID check, or oath of allegiance to any political party,” Liberal director of communications Leslie Church said in an e-mail.

“We’re open to all Canadians and hope people of all political stripes come to check us out.”

The parties ought to consider the London controversy an example of how not to use social media during the campaign, said Anatoliy Gruzd, director of the Social Media Lab at Dalhousie University.

“I understand why they would want to do that, [but] I don’t necessarily support that,” Gruzd said.

“I don’t think it should happen where people feel like they’re being monitored on the web and excluded from public events.”

The Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on ways to misuse social media in a campaign, but they’ve been using it in a very protective and reactive way, rather than in a productive and proactive way, said digital public affairs strategist Mark Blevis.

“In the social media world I don’t think that’s necessarily going to win you any votes,” he said.

“When you’re looking at politics and the use of the internet, specifically social media and social networking tools for your campaign, you’re more likely to have success when you focus on the digital culture’s evolution into this idea that it’s about productive relationship building.”

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