It Depends on Who You Know, Jamming, 29/04/2015

I loved it before I got into communications, and I love it even more now that I know exactly how much hard work goes into them. Corporate hashtag disasters. It sounds petty for me to bring it up, but there’s actually an intriguing social-epistemic concept underneath my juvenile joy in watching someone else’s idiocy.

Rachel Notley, leader of the weird, twisted version of
the NDP that exists in Alberta, hands Premier Jim
Prentice his arse in their recent debate.
This joy combined with my love of political horse races, as I keep an eye on the Alberta election, both for my own dorky entertainment and for the genuine political stakes for my country. If Jim Prentice, old guard of the Harper revolution, returns home with a hero’s entrance only to preside over the Conservative party losing the premiership of the movement’s heartland province . . . well, I’ll drink to that.

After slaughtering him in the leadership debates last week, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley started gaining in the polls to the point where it’s becoming a serious idea that she might win a minority government. So Premier Prentice turns for an answer to his campaign manager Randy Dawson, senior partner at the Navigator PR firm.*

* But employed as an individual, of course. Although one conservative activist claims to have created it herself.

His answer is #LifeWithNDP, a hashtag for people to describe all the horror stories of having to live under the governance of a social democratic party. Terrifying tales of waste, high taxes, and leadership stupidity would surely follow. And it did, for a little while.

Because it wasn’t long before people who generally liked the NDP noticed the hashtag and started using it to spread some messages that are very well-known in circles that sympathize with the New Democrats. Like their support of a well-funded education system or fuelling a prosperous middle class by taxing the wealthy at a rate that can fund state-of-the-art public services, like transit, public electricity infrastructure, and road repair.

Reading through conservative #LifeWithNDP tweets,
a lot of them had a very negative, harsh, almost
bullying tone. I think it's an advantage of the NDP
that they rarely sound like bullies and more often
either pleasant or filled with righteous rage for justice.
Who ultimately is in the right wouldn't matter, although you can probably tell by now which side of this political debate I support. What's important for communications practitioners to know, is that any hashtag campaign whose response structure is open-ended is not only uncontrollable, but inherently reactive.

Here's what that means without the philosophical language:** If you design a hashtag campaign about anything controversial, you have to make sure there's only one conceivable way to use its words. Because your opponents in the context of a social media campaign have the same power, as individuals, as you do: one feed, one voice.

** Which sounds a lot like business buzz-speak more often than a lot of us with a philosophical education would like to admit.

An example of this that we discussed in my classes at Sheridan was #McDstories. The idea was that people would use this hashtag to describe different experiences of the awesome time they had at McDonald’s. Of course, the hashtag was flooded pretty quickly with stories of people being treated rudely, eating terrible food, or being horrifyingly grossed out at McDonald’s. Even after McDonald’s pulled the promoted tweet they used to release the hashtag, people kept using it for days to bash the company.

It was easy for us to know how badly that was going to turn out. But the people who designed that campaign weren't people like us. They were high-ranking employees in McDonald's public relations. McDonald’s didn't give them gastro-intestinal illness like the rest of us; it paid their mortgages. These were people whose very identity was defined through their careers in McDonald’s. 

See, it's hard to accept that some
people don't have the same positive
attitude to a company when they
don't work for it.
They would have had only good opinions about McDonald’s, and would have been unable to conceive of anyone who didn’t. Everyone they saw every day loved McDonald’s. That everyone you see every day is also a McDonald's employee is a thought that doesn't always make it into the forefront of your mind. Human intuitions tend to confirm our biases, not critique them.

So it is with Jim Prentice, Randy Dawson, and the Alberta Progressive Conservatives. How many people in their social circles do you think has any positive opinion of the New Democratic Party? Even if we accept Sheila Gunn Reid at her word that it really started with her, you can ask the same question. I’d say absolutely none. Regarding this question, they lived in a bubble of confirmation bias. 

A bubble thicker and harder to burst than the ones in my stomach after a meal at McDonald's. #McDstories.

It doesn’t matter what the ultimate ratio of pro to anti New Democrat was in the #LifeWithNDP hashtag. The fact that it was open-ended gave opponents to conservatives the space to fight it, and the result was that it opened up the social media ecology to a controversy instead of a blunt instrument. 

Maybe a more enlightened, media savvy government could learn the powers and limitations of social media before using it. #LifeWithNDP


  1. Nicely put.

    I'm surprised you don't mention how individuals supportive of the Alberta Hard-Right have attempted to use #LifeWithNDP to highlight some of the issues that have been faced by other past and current NDP governments in other provinces. As individual supporters of the Right, they erred by dragging Manitoba socialist supporters into the fracas that is the provincial election two provinces away.

    This, in essence, placed several provinces worth of Socialists on the defensive, viewing those tweets as what they were: An attempt to belittle us in order to bolster the benefits of the Conservative ideology.

    An awful lot of fence-sitters have landed on one side or the other because people who have no stake in the Alberta election were defending themselves.

    I would have thought that that someone in the Alberta Conservative or Wildrose campaign management would have dropped a note to the few individuals doing this, but so far, the attack on other jurisdictions continues. Much of it is quite caustic and downright misleading. This is leaving a pretty bad taste in a lot of undecided mouths when they think of whether they want a government on the Left or the Right.

    What are they thinking?

    1. As far as my hypothesis goes, they were thinking that everyone must agree with them. Everyone around them agrees with them. They're surrounded by no one any different from them. It's them as far as the eye can see. This is why I always try to surround myself with people of different backgrounds and political beliefs, so that I don't take my own for granted.

      I really do think that social insularity, or at least a lack of social variety, is a major element of how political extremism breeds. The right wing is especially prone to the most vile expressions of extremism, I think, because there's an additional element in modern conservatism of moralism. Individuals are blamed for their situation: we're all free, so if you're poor, then it's your fault for not working harder and becoming rich. If you try to explain that it isn't so simple, that structural causes are responsible, it's dismissed as an empty excuse.

      I've written some earlier posts about Friedrich Hayek's philosophy, whose immense popular success goes a long way to explaining why conservatives today are so hostile to social or structural explanations of society's ills. They actually believe that causes which only appear at the social level don't exist, meaning that individual decision and responsibility is the only factor in any societal ill. There are more complicated reasons for this belief, but that's for another time.