There's confusion around the current regulations for marijuana. We clarify what's legal and what's not, who can sell it, who can buy it, and where dispensaries fit in.
I'm pretty excited to share our latest project with you. Today, we launched Legalized, our new podcast which will look at the emerging cannabis sector from a public affairs and regulatory perspective.
This is kind of like episode 0.5, to set the stage for our first episode. There are a number of competing objectives and goals with legalizing recreational marijuana use. There are also a lot of questions that need to be answered: How will distribution work? Who will be responsible for what? What will be legal on day one?
Join us as we talk about all of these issues and consider where regulation is headed.
This week we had to take the show on the road. An unexpected trip to Montreal meant we had to get a little bit more creative with our production. So instead of going through our top three issues, we decided to focus on the top issue of the week: electoral reform. And this week, when we say electoral reform, we mean the Liberal government’s mydemocracy.ca survey that generated a lot of criticism both online and offline.
According to the site, the purpose of the survey is:
MyDemocracy.ca is an innovative way to join the national conversation on electoral reform. By answering a few questions, you can draw a picture of your democratic values. You can share your results with friends. It only takes a few minutes to answer and your feedback will help shape a healthier democracy.
As you answer the questions, remember that there are no wrong answers and your individual responses will always remain anonymous. This is a different way of consulting Canadians – we hope you enjoy this, and learn something too. Thank you for participating.
However, our special guests had some different feelings about its intention.
Allie and David are joined by Travis Kann to talk about the fall economic update, CETA (again), the Liberal government’s pay-to-play scandal, and of course, the American election.
Fall Economic Update
Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced that the Liberal government will continue with its deficit spending plan. Earlier in the week he announced an additional $81 billion for things like infrastructure and transit, that will be spent over the next 11 years. This includes the creation of a new infrastructure bank. While not surprising, the announcement was met with criticism from the Conservatives – who say the Liberals have failed to create any new jobs but continue to spend, and the NDP – who say that increased infrastructure spending will mean increased privatization to balance it out.
CETA, Take Two
With some back-and-forth action and a signed deal, the government – and specifically Minster of International Trade, Chrystia Freeland – can rest a bit easier. The 1,600-page document was ratified this week, and Canadians were paying attention. But it wasn’t all celebrating: online, criticism focused on how much power corporations are given in the deal and the general feeling was that the trade agreement will only help the rich get richer. Additionally, with the deal being seven years in the making, most of the praise for the dealing finally going through was directed at the former Conservative administration, rather than the current Liberal government.
The Liberal government just can’t seem to shake its elitist reputation. With the Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Commissioner as well as the Lobbying Commissioner both investigating ticket prices for government events, the Liberals are having to defend throwing parties. Tickets for events featuring cabinet members cost roughly around $1,500, causing critics to cry favouritism – with the average Canadian not able to afford the hefty cost, the argument is that there is preferential access to ministers for the rich, allowing them to throw around their influence. However, while it seems dramatic and scandalous, it’s getting much more play in the House and the media than it is with the general population.
This week Allie, Colin and David talk about CETA, Canada’s refugee policy, and Trudeau getting heckled at a youth labour conference and take a break from talking about American politics.
Will we, won’t we? Earlier this week, there was drama here and across the Atlantic when the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada seemed to fall apart only days before it was supposed to be signed. Wallonia, a region in Belgium, wants safeguards on labour and environmental and consumer standards. They’re also looking for some protection for Walloon farmers in competition with Canadian farmers. Belgium’s federal system requires all six of its regions to be on board to be able to approve the agreement. Considering this deal has been seven years in the making, this was a pretty big deal.
But, everyone has since made up – or at least come to some sort of a consensus. As of Thursday, it appears the deal is back on.
This week, the Conservatives put forward a bill to fast-track Yazidi refugees into Canada. MPs voted unanimously to formally declare the persecution of Yazidis by ISIS a genocide and to prioritize Yazidis over the next four months. However, while the government has promised to the fast-tracking, they haven’t given any hard numbers.
Trudeau gets heckled
The Prime Minister attended a youth labour forum this week, but wasn’t met with a warm welcome. A number of delegates turned their backs on Trudeau and refused to engage with him on a number of issues, including global warming and precarious work.
Earlier in the week Finance Minister Bill Morneau stated that short-term contracts and high job turnover rates were the new normal for youth employment. Many of the delegates found these remarks offensive and that Morneau was suggesting it’s something millennials should just learn to deal with. Additionally, many at the forum heckled Trudeau for continuing with a number of initiatives and targets set by the previous government.
Because of all this, Trudeau basically ended up scolding the room. Whether or not the forum will end up tarnishing the Prime Minister’s brand is debatable, though. The attendees of the forum might be more left-leaning than the average Canadian, and not necessarily representative of the youth vote.
Ugh. Where to start? I mean, where to begin with this most depressing of American presidential campaigns? November 8, 2016 just can’t come soon enough, right? We’ll just all wake up from this horrible dream, relieved it’s over and get back to normal. Such a peaceful thought. If only we could live our lives through rose-coloured lenses. Truth is, I know things aren’t right in this world when I find myself agreeing with a Globe and Mail columnist. John Ibbitson recently predicted that while Trump will likely lose, “he is the final warning to the elites.” I’m afraid he hit this one on the head:
“Unless political elites of both the left and the right become more humble, unless they once again ask themselves how their agendas will play in Peoria, the next rough beast might slouch over the corpse of the republic.”
We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of the anti-establishment sentiment in the US. It’s not going away anytime soon. Those of us looking for a return to normal are in for a surprise if Clinton wins. Her victory will bring immediate relief to just about everyone north of the border, but we won’t have time to catch our breath before an unsatisfied, unhappy underbelly of discontent rears its ugly head. I’d like to think the anti-establishment movement could shed itself of the racist, bigoted, protectionist elements that make it such a foul movement. But, I suppose that’s probably a pipe dream. I’m not the only one yearning for a return to something a little more—I don’t know—gosh darn sincere.
And for a brief moment, we all got that aw shucks sincerity. You may have heard of him. He was an Internet sensation for a couple days (that’s like 80 years in Internet age). Yep. Ken Bone, ye of perfect meme nomenclature. Amongst the wreckage of personal attacks that plagued the second presidential debate, this man-in-the-red-sweater asked a snoozer of a question about energy policy. Proving just how nerdy we really are, the Internet found love at first sight. In hindsight, I suppose it makes sense; Ken provided a respite from the divisiveness of this horrible campaign—a breath of fresh air in a moist, damp locker room.
What followed was as predictable as a Harlequin romance.
We Find Love
Within hours, people already had their perfect Halloween costume. Ken’s Twitter followers grew from a mere 7 to a whopping 250,000. He got play on the Late Night circuit and for a brief time symbolized all that is right with the world. We wanted to know why he went with a red sweater. We wanted him as a candidate. We couldn’t get enough. Why didn’t we see more of this in this campaign?
I’m not sure Ken knew what predicament he found himself in, but it was pretty much the worse place to be: the Internet’s hero. Once you reach that level, you can only fall, usually with a bruising thud. And when the Internet turns on you, it cuts deep. In truth, we all leave a trail on the Internet. And as we started digging, we found that our shiny new object wasn’t so shiny after all.
Our Hearts Are Broken
The debate question everyone loved…“what step will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”…wasn’t as innocent as it first appeared. Ken works in the coal industry for a company that opposes climate regulations and has dodged current legislation to be environmentally friendly. In hindsight, his question seemed a little more self-serving.
He took to his fame by hosting a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Sure, he was a gracious host, and started a T-shirt campaign to raise funds to fight homelessness — but he foolishly used his old username, which made it dead simple for anyone to dig into his past musings. He apparently left a comment on a pregnancy subreddit describing expecting mothers as ”beautiful human submarines.” He confessed to viewing naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and, uh…enjoying it. He committed felony insurance fraud and even suggested the shooting of Trayvon Martin was “justified.” He used his fame for a one-off Uber promotion in St. Louis. Just like that, our hero had become an “ignorant bonehead”, and a seedy sell-out.
We Piece Some of it Back Together
With the nasty stuff out of the way, some writers tried to paint a picture of a man—who like the rest of us—has many layers. No single person can be summed up in an Internet meme. This same Ken also wrote that he’s a conservative who likes Obama. He wrote a compassionate response to a rape victim. He condemned Stanford rapist Brock Turner.
Now Ken spends what appears to be considerable effort defending himself. He has clarified some of his comments. “I do not condone the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Justifiable means legal, not right.” His Twitter feed now contains links to threads and articles that defend him. He still has fans who work feverishly to push out a more sympathetic narrative of Ken. But most of us have moved on. We’ve already had enough of Ken. He’s yesterday’s news.
I’ll leave it to Ken and his fanbase to defend his words and deeds. I only highlight his story as an example of how fickle we are. We don’t have time for old news. We move from one meme to the next in just about the same amount of time Usain Bolt runs 100 meters. It’s an unforgiving place—time is never on your side, and people are apt to remember the most negative thing that was last said about you. Never mind the full story or context. That’s boring. We want to be entertained.
But, we’ve gotten to the point where that entertainment is blurry. It’s not fun, even if we try to make it that way. There’s no escaping the slog of this campaign season. There was one symbol—even if we never really took it seriously— that was supposed to provide some kind of light in a dark world. Ken, version 1.0, made the Internet pleasant, at least for a couple hours. Now that light doesn’t shine so brightly. In a way, Ken has become a symbol of this campaign. Whenever we have thought that it might get better, it only gets worse. Everywhere we look, it’s ugly. All of it. And I’m afraid it only gets uglier here on in, no matter what happens on November 8.
On that cheery note, let me get back to what really matters.
As originally published for Navigator Ltd.
We are back this week with our regular format and our regular panel. Both Colin MacDonald and David Woolley join Allie to talk about health care transfers, carbon tax, and the presidential debate.
Provincial Health Care Transfers
The provincial and territorial ministers continue to be unhappy with federal health care transfers. In the ongoing debate over funding, most provinces feel like the government should increase funding and leave them alone to decide how is should be spent. Like with most national issues, the arguments revolve around whether provinces are best at deciding how to manage their own policies, or if the federal government should step in and ensure that resources and money are allocated equally across the country.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott met with provincial and territorial ministers on Tuesday to continue discussions, but many left the meeting still feeling like the government is imposing.
It’s a tax! A tax! The Liberal government is still being criticized by the opposition for what the conservative party is labelling an unnecessary levy. This week, carbon was mentioned with taxes for music lessons and small businesses, furthering the opposition party’s narrative that Trudeau’s liberals love to spend and have lost touch with the average Canadian.
Premiers continue to oppose the tax for various reasons. Both Brad Wall and Rachel Notley have come out against it – although our panel has suspicions that Brad Wall’s opposition might be more ideologically and opportunistic than it is policy-driven. Notley has stated that she won’t support carbon pricing until the federal government has made some headway on pipelines…but there’s no word on how that’s going yet.
The Presidential Debate
The third and final debate has finally come and gone…and while people can be relieved that it’s over, there’s still that whole election thing that has to happen. Trump was uncharacteristically restrained for the first 30 minutes before reverting back to his old self and giving everyone the soundbites they have come to expect – not the least of which was that he won’t respect the democratic process if he doesn’t win.
All of the campaigning and debating seems to have people down in the dumps. Over the past week a number of compilation videos of Barack Obama’s time in office and of Michelle’s most recent speech have floated around the Internet with wistful comments. In light this campaign, many are wishing both of them could stick around for four more years.
Parliament is on a break this week so we are taking the off week to talk to you about our favourite podcasts.
This week, I join Allie in front of the microphone. It’s probably no surprise that since we make a podcast, we have some strong feelings and opinions on the podcasts we listen to.
Our podcast is not the only one talking about Canadian politics: some of the others also in the game are Canadaland Commons, Maclean’s on the Hill, CBC’s The House, and The Strategists. But we figure if you’re listening to us, you’ve probably already come across these ones before, so we want to share some others with you.
I'm a former political staffer and a general political junkie, so my favourite shows speak to my experiences. I break down FiveThirtyEight’s episode on Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech from his 2008 campaign. The episode talks about how the now historic speech came about, and how Obama’s team handled the crisis that preceded it.
I also talk about my new favourite show Candidate Confessional. The podcast goes behind the scenes to talk about political defeat and we look at the episode on Mitt Romney’s 2012 run for the White House. I talk about why I think Stu Stevens, Mitt Romney’s senior strategist, is worth listening to on the highs and lows of political campaigning.
Allie found a new favourite Canadian podcast. She’s a big fan of The Globe and Mail’s new show, Colour code. The podcast talks about something that Canadians tend to shy away from: race. Looking at Canadian issues, examples, and speaking with Canadian experts and Canadians themselves, it’s a refreshing look at our history, our policies, and our perceptions on “multiculturalism.” Allie talks about the two most recent episodes – First Comes Love and 2Legit – and how they relate to her – both personally and professionally.
The top issue this week – for both the Ottawa and the Canadian conversation – is the Liberal government’s carbon pricing plan. Trudeau told the provinces that they either choose to shape up, or they’ll be forced to shape up, in terms of the environment. Basically, provinces have to implement either a cap and trade or a carbon levy that meets the minimum requirements set by the federal government by 2018. That minimum is $10 a tonne for 2018 and the price will rise each year to reach $50 a tonne by 2022. Cue certain provinces being upset that the federal government is imposing on provincial regulation. Cue Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall posting to Facebook to express his disappointment in Trudeau. Cue certain people in provinces feeling like rural populations will be unfairly taxed in comparison to city dwellers. Of course all of this is, in part, due to Canada’s commitments laid out by the Paris climate agreement. We have to cut our emissions from our 2005 levels by 30% by 2030.
Issue number two for the week is BC LNG. The government conditionally approved a mega liquefied natural gas project. The $36-billion deal would ship 19 million tonnes of LNG. While Rona Ambrose was skeptical of the approval, noting that there will be many more consultations before construction is actually underway, the political reception was fairly positive. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley took the announcement as good news: if the federal government is willing to approve this project, there may be other pipeline projects to follow. As we note on the show, the timing of this announcement works to the Liberal government’s favour. By combining this with the carbon tax news, it covers its bases with both environmental concerns and economic growth.
Our last issue for this week is provincial health care transfers. Trudeau’s government has built its reputation on collaboration and cooperation. However, the ministers aren’t feeling the team love when it comes to health care transfers. The government is following the Harper government’s model, financing 3% of provincial health care, which many of the provinces feel is inadequate to provide quality care to their aging populations. They want to meet with the Prime Minister, but so far he’s playing hard to get. Again, the provinces feel like the federal government is imposing. Currently, health care transfers come with strings: the funding must go to certain initiatives. Initiatives like home services, rather than hospital services. Ministers want to talk this out and revaluate these strings and the dollar amounts associated, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s penciling anything into their calendars any time soon.
That Canada might be negotiating an extradition treaty with China was the top issue coming out of Ottawa this week. The government is discussing what China refers to as “economic criminals” and what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch feel might be more like “political refugees.” Both China and Canada are saying that Canada shouldn’t be a safe haven for Chinese citizens who have absconded with millions of dollars, but NGOs are skeptical, citing China’s poor human rights record as a strike against a possible treaty. Right now, talks are early and high-level and nothing has been decided.
We’re still discussing the moving expenses “scandal”. After it came to light that the Liberal party footed the bill for a number of staffers to relocate to Ottawa, two senior staffers – Gerald Butts and Katie Telford – took responsibility for their expenses, issuing a statement on Facebook. Both Butts and Telford have promised to reimburse what are considered some of the more extravagant costs. And while this could have fed into the opposition’s narrative of excessive Liberal spending, it’s resulting in more of a finger pointing game: surprise surprise, when called out on their expenses, the Liberals threw it right back to the Conservatives and pointed out spending under Harper’s administration. Basically, everyone’s saying that on Parliament Hill it’s all spend, spend, spend.
And last but not least: Hillary Clinton stood on a stage next to Donald Trump for almost two hours, reminding everyone that this is in fact real life and not a really long SNL cold open. Although it wasn’t discussed in the House, the first US debate was all over broadcast and print media and all over our Canadian conversation. Canadians got the extra benefit of being able to watch and live-tweet the spectacle with a level of remove. But, lest we forget, the results of the 2016 election will be very real come November. So buckle up – right now, two more debates are planned and who knows, someone might call Sean Hannity before the next one.
The House is back and so are we! Welcome to season two of Political Traction. To kick off our new season we’re changing things up a bit. First off, we have a slightly new format: instead of only bringing Colin MacDonald on as a frequent guest, he will be joining Allie and David every week as part of our Political Traction panel. So, every week the three of us will break down the top issues coming out of Ottawa and whether or not they got traction with the Canadian public.
Secondly, we’ve got some new data for you! This season you can sign up for our weekly digest of additional data, delivered right to your inbox.
You can download and sign up for this week’s download below.
And now, without further ado, we bring you this week’s issues: a good news/bad news roundup for the Liberal government.
Justin Trudeau was in New York to speak to the United Nation’s General Assembly. The speech focused on the global migrant crisis and Canada’s commitment for settling refugees. Trudeau has received a lot of praise for the speech, both at home and abroad (but also a little bit of snark). Given that the speech emphasized Canada as a peaceful, open, and welcoming country, a lot of comparisons were made between our national rhetoric and that of Donald Trump (see: skittles). Stating that we need to choose “hope over fear” and “diversity over division”, Trudeau is clearly placing Canada in opposition to the Republican nominee.
The Liberal Government, and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in particular, are receiving some criticism after announcing they will be sticking with the carbon emission targets set by the Conservatives. In the past, the liberals criticized the targets, calling them the “floor” and that the liberals “want to try to do better.” At the same time McKenna stated that she will impose some sort of fine for provinces that don’t implement a cap and trade system.
And lastly, the government is also receiving some flak for moving expenses for some of its staff. Although completely legal, some of the costs for relocating government staff to Ottawa are questionable, such as legal and real estate fees.
He says outrageous things. He lies. But somehow, he still has a lot of supporters.
In this special episode, we explore what’s going on with Trump and how we can explain voter behavior. Talking with Nelson Wiseman, Professor of Political Science and Director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto and Anne Kilpatrick, a Principal on our Research Team, we delve into our current political climate and why someone might support Donald Trump.
Professor Wiseman explains what makes Trump appealing and Anne walks us through the difficulties of asking people why they might do something: getting people to explain their rationales is more complicated than you think.
As originally published on Navigator's website.
As humans, we are all ill-equipped to live on our own. We’re social animals who have coalesced into tribes since the beginning of time. And for literally ages, most of our tribes were organized along (often fluid) geographical lines. Our tribal associations led to the beginnings of agriculture in Mesopotamia; the rise of cities that we would recognize 5,000 years later, and the invention of writing, among other achievements. Even in more recent times, tribes were largely organized by geography—our local places of worship, bowling clubs, knitting groups etc. Geography placed such an important role in our ability to gather that national hobby organizations have long been structured around local chapters—think boy scouts, girl guides, home brewing clubs etc.
Today, we’re agnostic towards geography. Thanks to the Internet, tribes that would never have existed in a pre-digital age are now thriving online communities. It’s a completely predictable outcome—our natural instinct to organize and identify with tribes runs deep. In our line of work, we often think about the “ audiences” we need to target to get our message out. It can be easy to forget that these “audiences” are real people—human beings who collectively want to belong to something. We’re often too focused on how we get our message in front of the right eyeballs, we forget to take a moment to reflect on what motivates the people we need to reach, and what shared interests they might have. By addressing those questions, we might stand a better chance of making our content resonate.
In the public affairs and advocacy space, tribes are the vocal supporters and fans who believe in our cause (or worse, in a cause that’s mobilizing against us) to the point that they are willing to tell everyone they know about it. And in exceptional cases, they’re willing to step away from the keyboard to express their support in tangible ways: voting at the ballot box, becoming active shareholders, organizing a hostile takeover, demonstrating in the streets, to name a few.
Of course, it’s a cliché to say, but the Internet lets these same activists bring more fuel to the fire. They can use the Internet to self-organize and lend your movement legitimacy, or bring total disruption if you’re on the wrong side of an issue. One hyper-active member can bring more people onside, growing and cultivating an army of supporters. And while activists were once constrained by geography, this has become a thing of the past. This means tribes can become overnight movements that can either build your reputational equity or make your life a living hell, depending on which side of the tribe’s shared interests you find yourself on. The Internet makes the infrastructure easy: all it takes is an Internet connection, a shared interest, and a digital gathering place, and you technically have a tribe. But that alone won’t be enough. A tribe is a living, breathing thing. Something needs to be the glue that holds these individuals together. That could be you and/or your organization.
The Power of a Tribe
But why would you want to build your own tribe? We often tell our clients that one day soon, some outside force will have a direct (and potentially) negative impact on their business. It could be that government is considering new legislation or regulations directly impacting your business. Or the public has decided to side with third-party interests groups targeting you or your industry; or that you’re on the receiving end of a hostile takeover. You’re always at risk. In our experience, most organizations have the appropriate resources in place to do conventional corporate communications, government relations and investor relations, but few, if any, have a program to build a tribe of active supporters. And by failing to build and cultivate tribes, organizations are at risk of being outmaneuvered by tribes with opposing interests. For example, most companies wait until a legislative or regulatory crisis erupts before rallying supporters to their defence. But for such a cry to have any effect, you need to have an attentive tribe at your disposal. In today’s environment, you simply cannot do public affairs well without having a tribe in your corner. But building that tribe is a laborious exercise. So how do you get there?
Identify shared interests.
As with most things in life, the hardest part is starting out. The work of identifying your potential tribe members starts from the inside. Look around. What type of people are working for your organization or your cause? What motivates them? Why do they care about your line of work? Then work your way out. What common characteristics do your shareholders or members have? Why have they decided to align themselves with you? If you already have an online presence, take a look at your fanbase. Ask the same set of questions. Rinse and repeat and you’ll soon uncover common threads—shared interests that unite them. You may even uncover a variety of shared interests, which could be a sign that you have multiple tribes in your orbit that you could foster.
Understand the tribe’s language and speak it.
In a study by Professor Vincent Jansen from Royal Holloway, even online communities havetheir own language with a tendency to deliberately use misspelled words, much as people have regional accents when they speak. For reasons I will never comprehend, Justin Bieber fans have a penchant for ending their words with “ee,” as in “pleasee.” Of course, these are literal examples, but each tribe has its own language. They approach issues with a certain view. They have a specific vocabulary (e.g., how some right-wing activists refer to the CBC as the Communist Broadcasting Corporation instead of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or the Toronto Star as the Red Star, for their perceived left-wing bias). If you want to build a tribe, or mobilize one, you’ll stand a better chance if you’re part of the tribe. And that means you have to talk the talk. That’s where public opinion research can be your friend, especially if you tap into big data sources like Facebook topic data.
Map your tribe’s personas.
Now that you’ve gathered data you need to make it useable. That means fleshing it out and putting it in a digestible format. Using the the findings from our first exercise (finding shared interests), and the cursory information gleaned from the second exercise (getting a feel for the tribe’s language), you now need to gather demographic info that can help you paint a complete picture of all the types of individuals who make up your tribe. Can you distill that information down to easily identifiable personalities—a visual representation of who you need to reach out to with all your outbound communication efforts to make an emotive connection?
Test the messages that motivate action.
Now that you have identified the type of individuals that would be inclined to join your tribe, you need to put content out in the ether and see what sticks. You won’t have a true sense of what actually works until you put content out there, but by now you should have a sense of whether it stands a chance.
Be the glue that holds the tribe together.
As you begin to put out and test your messages, you have a much more important objective: build relationships with the people you’re courting. Keep your tribe informed about new developments; ask them for advice; seek their help when you need them to take action; and give back as much as you can. For the most part, email, private messages, and Facebook pages will be the vehicles through which you contact your tribe members. Too often, we’re so focused on trying to get something out of our “list” that we forget how exhausting it is to be on the receiving end of non-stop asks. A tribe will stick with you if you provide value and if you give more than you take.
Building a tribe and then nourishing it is tough work. It takes a lot of time and patience — two things no one can buy. But, with diligent and thoughtful work, it can be done. And these days, it should be done. Favour can change as fast as tribes can be created, and you never know when you’ll need a community in your corner.
As originally published on Navigator's website.
The Promise of Information Freedom
Control was the Internet’s great promise when it went mainstream. I distinctly remember logging on for the first time in late 1995. I loaded one of the first search engines, Infoseek (this was pre-Google, of course), which aggregated popular content by subject and went click-happy exploring the “Word Wide Web.”
If you remember pre-Internet life, you certainly remember how thrilling this was. You felt like you were in the driver seat. You could explore topics and find whole websites dedicated to the same interests you had. You held the keys to an instant library curated by a community of freaks and geeks who shared your niche passions.
Within a year, our house had its first Internet-ready computer, and I would subsequently spend hours and hours after school, just “surfing” this massive sea of information. It was freedom. When Google came along and archived the Internet so that you could search just about anything, it truly felt like information freedom. And until recently, that was always the frame I used when thinking about the Internet. It’s a place of uncensored, unrestricted, limitless information available to anyone who wants to find it.
Or is it?
The Reality of Information Overload
There is so much information on the Internet (in excess of 1.2 million terabytes, by some accounts), there’s simply no way to realistically navigate all it on our own. That’s why we have become so dependent on curators. The most popular platforms, of course, are Facebook, Twitter, and even Google.
Canadians cite Facebook as their number one destination for news. But Facebook gives us a distinct point of view on the world, one that is mostly removed from real-world realities. Its algorithm is designed to populate your news feed with content you are most likely to find engaging. If you start liking your best friend’s baby pics, you’ll start to see more baby pics. Start an instant messenger conversation with someone and suddenly you start seeing a lot more of their status updates in your timeline. The algorithm is designed to keep you hooked with constant doses of entertainment so you keep coming back. The more effective the algorithm, the more daily users it generates for Facebook, and the more advertising it can sell. It’s a symbiotic relationships that, for the most part, keeps everyone happy.
But, does that come at a cost? Freakonomics Radio has a fascinating episode on this issue earlier this month. The episode begins with a story by Zenep Tufekci who studies the social impact of technology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She recounts how she experienced the Ferguson Unrest of Aug 2014. When she logged to Twitter, her feed was consumed by this story—an unrelenting stream of tweets about police overreaction. When she switched to Facebook, she saw nothing about. It was as if she had a lense into two completely different universes. And in many ways, that’s each social platform: its own universe, with distinct user experiences that filter information in their own ways.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter has left its social feed largely unaltered since its inception 10 years ago; it remains an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Twitter’s most avid users love that feature, but for many, it’s overwhelming. Where Facebook has successfully grown its user base by finding more sophisticated ways displaying relevant content, Twitter has taken an approach that “Internet Freedom” advocates would appreciate: it keeps the faucet open. What comes out of that faucet is largely unfiltered, which, of course, has caused Twitter griefon more than one occasion. Cyberbullying aside, Twitter has been struggling of late, and Wall Street wants it to adopt a Facebook-like algorithm. But even if it sticks to its guns and continues with its current feed format, it remains a biased view of the world. As a user, you can only diversify what you’re seeing in your feed by altering the list of people you follow.
The lense through which we see, use, and consume information on the Internet is increasingly—almost exclusively—a lense shaped by others, for our viewing pleasure. We let our social feeds tell us what matters, what news to read, what video clips to watch, or which Netflix series to get hooked on next. Precisely because there is so much information, it’s easier to embrace a socially-validated news feed. If our social networks, and the social platforms we use every day do all the hard work of finding the content that resonates most with us, who are we to stop them? It’s too convenient; it simplifies our life.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve reverted to the passive consumption that the Internet was supposed to free us from. In 1995, I took delight in having complete control (or what felt like complete control) over what I consumed. In 2016, I’m so damn busy, and have so much information to sift through, I love having all that hard work done for me through a couple apps on my phone. But I concede that in embracing this reality, I’m letting others tell me what information to consume. And by doing so, I’ve given up control as a consumer of information.
As we consume an Internet that is curated by a small group of highly-influential companies, we should remember, the Internet looks the way it does because we want it to look that way. We can’t fault Facebook, Google, or Twitter for serving up content its users want to see. If we don’t like that idea, we should stop watching cat videos or opt out of the platforms altogether. Right — so that won’t happen any time soon — which means that as professional communicators, we need to crack the code and find ways to make our content pass the rigorous demands of Facebook’s algorithm, or Twitter’s finicky user base.
How to crack the code
In truth, we shouldn’t even focus on cracking the code. Curated social feeds only work if they display content people want to consume. Our goal should be the same. Admittedly, this is no easy task when it comes to public affairs content. In this space, we’re typically dealing with matters that have some regulatory, legislative, or public administration concern to them.Snooze! Who wants their social feed experience disrupted by content that deals with such serious, and potentially boring issues? In a universe where people would rather watch clips from the Late Show, inserting ourselves in that space with a serious, cognitive, or alarmist message is jarring and typically off-putting to most people. That’s because they turn to their social channels for distraction or to connect with others, not to hear about why they should sign your petition demanding the government sets a renewable energy target of 100% by 2050. But we know that people will engage on these issues. However, it takes a thoughtful approach, and one that meets people’s expectations for what they will see on these platforms. So, how can we get people to respond to “boring” issues that typically rely on the cognitive side of the brain to make the point?
1. Lead with motive and make it emotional
People are naturally cynical, which means we need to lead with motive and be completely transparent about it. But to make your message a one-two punch, you need to avoid cognitive arguments as much as humanly possible. Our brain is wired to ignore the boring and respond quickly to novel, concrete, visual, and high-contrast messages instead. Eventually, you can speak to the cognitive side of the brain with compelling facts and figures, but before getting to that point, the brain needs to be primed. After it’s primed, It will respond much more quickly and be motivated by emotion. When in doubt, remember, people care about people. Obviously, they care about themselves, but they also care about their identity – the tribe with which they associate. Appeal to both their self-interests and the interests of the communities they align with.
2. Make it enjoyable
Even if you’re campaigning on an issue that will get people worked up, present yourself as a happy warrior. Have a little bit of fun. People go online to have fun, and if you’re going to serve up your message in that context, make sure you fit in. If fun is completely off-brand for you, or if you worry about it backfiring—always a real possibility—then the rest of the user experience needs to be completely engaging. Even on serious issues, make your campaign video absolutely moving from the first frame to the last one. The creative should be beautiful, and any video should be immaculately composed. The copy should read flawlessly. All aspects of the campaign should have an attractive design aesthetic. We’re bombarded with facts and figures all day; we rarely come across quality content. So when quality appears in our feeds, we react.
3. Make it novel
When we’re scrolling through our social feeds, we’re looking for something different—something unexpected. We want something to grab our attention. As communicators, getting that attention is one of the most difficult assignments we could ask for. We literally have split seconds to grab someone’s attention. As Chip and Dan Heath taught us, “before your message can stick, your audience has to want it.” So, spark their curiosity. Shine a light on your audience’s curiosity gap, then immediately fill it.
4. Keep it simple
This is an easy one to get wrong. When we think about keeping things simple, we often think about the KISS method, (Keep It Simple, Stupid), which actually takes us down the wrong path. It gives us the wrong impression that we need to dumb down a message. However, the problem with dumbing down the message is that we look like we don’t have anything to back up or point or that we have something to hide. We should never hide. For our message to have credibility, it needs to be complete. So rather than try to dumb it down, we should focus on the priority that matters most. What’s the core message? That’s what we communicate. Ah, if only it were that simple, right?
5. Use vivid imagery
People need to visualize our message. They need to see what a perfect world looks like. The best way to help them visualize that future is to paint a picture with language that is concrete. Don’t force the viewer to work hard to imagine the end-state. Show it to them immediately so that the cognition doesn’t get in the way of emotion. Help people “see” what you’re saying.
With both the Conservative and the Liberal Parties holding conventions last weekend, there’s a lot to talk about. In particular, the Conservative Party managed to generate some memorable moments that will likely live on the Internet for some time and pop up every now and then in the future.
Parliament was on break this week, but lots still happened. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Japan for the G7 Summit – where he managed to fit in some anniversary time with his wife – and both the Conservatives and the Liberals held their conventions over the weekend. On top of that, there was media speculation that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to resign his seat in the House of Commons.
Allie and David talk about these issues and the last bit of news on Elbowgate 2016, and Allie talks with regular on the show, Will Stewart, about Stephen Harper and his possible career outside of politics.
By Facebook’s own account, people spend 1.7 seconds with a piece of content on mobile. Every second matters. In fact, it takes only 0.25 seconds of exposure for people to recall content they saw on their mobile feed. These initial seconds can make a profound impact. When people watch the first three seconds of a Facebook video, 65% watch the next seven seconds, and 45% make it to the 30-second mark. It’s a rude awakening for those of us used to producing 30 second spots to get our message out. In an environment that allocates a whopping 1.7 seconds to make a lasting impression, we must adapt, meet people’s evolving expectations, and stop the thumb. So, how can we stand out in the news feed?
‘Twas the elbow felt around the nation. On Wednesday, May 18, 2016 there was an event of epic proportions in the House of Commons…kind of. Elbows were misdirected. Words were thrown. Insults abounded. And we are all left to consider the aftermath.
In this week’s episode, Allie and David discuss the incident in the House of Commons that resulted from rising tensions over Motion 6 and what is being considered the government’s attempts to curtail debate. Allie also talks with Randi Rahamim on the event and the NDP and Conservative parties’ response.