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Lessons from Trudeau’s re-election

Montreal’s McGill University published a series of reports on Digital Democracy, in the run-up to October’s Canadian federal election, which saw Justin Trudeau’s Liberals lose their majority, but hold on to power.

Unsurprisingly, they recorded a tremendous surge in social media activity around Canadian politics, coinciding with the start of the election period: they found political activity on Twitter was up by 800%, and 250% on public Facebook posts.

One of the most explosive stories of the campaign was the emergence of photos and video of multiple instances of Trudeau wearing ‘blackface‘ makeup: he said he was ‘wary of being definitive’ about how many times he had done it, but acknowledged ‘how racist and hurtful this type of thing was’.

The revelations were at odds with Trudeau’s nice-guy image, and created a storm on social media. But the researchers noted that: ‘the general public’s discussion (of the story) dropped dramatically after three days. Tweets on the topic from journalists and election candidates had a similar decline… By one week after the story broke, there was very little general Twitter interest in the story. The pattern on Facebook is similar, although the volume of public posts is much smaller.’

The researchers also offered some interesting findings on the topic of polarisation. Survey respondents showed ‘dislike of parties or their supporters on the other end of the political spectrum simply because they belong to an opposing group’ – with no distinction between official party representatives and supporters.

For a number of social groups, they asked how comfortable people would feel about a member of the group becoming their neighbour, or being a close friend; and how upset they would be if a son or daughter married someone from each group. They found: ‘the social distance partisans feel towards supporters of the (other) party is higher than all of the other social groups listed, except for Muslims.’

They also looked at partisan media outlets, finding that they only reached ‘a small percentage of Canadians who share those partisan leanings. What makes someone more likely to consume these news sources is not how partisan they are, but how much time they spend on social media.’

As we’ve seen in the UK at the peaks of the Brexit debate, fact-checking articles grew in popularity and effectiveness as the battle heated up. But interestingly:

  • They found that fact-checking articles were more likely to be helpful to people who already had a base understanding of the issue in question.
  • ‘Fact-checking improves individuals’ belief in their capacity to understand and participate in politics, particularly among those who have their correct beliefs reinforced by fact-checks. There is no evidence of a corresponding decrease in efficacy among those who had incorrect beliefs on the subject of the fact-check.’
  • When it came to fact-checking articles, ‘there was no significant difference in responses to fact-checks from the journalist, the politician or the random Twitter user’ – so politicians shouldn’t be shy about writing and publishing articles themselves.
  • Fact-checks were not found to reduce trust in politicians.
  • People on the right of politics were ‘slightly less supportive’ of fact-checking than left-leaning partisans.