Social media and 2012 UMSU general elections

Once again, the candidates of 2012 University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) general elections will not be allowed to use social media to campaign.

Michael Safiniuk, chief returning officer (CRO) for the 2012 UMSU general elections, explained that he did not feel there were sufficient bylaws and policies surrounding the use of social media in place to allow it as part of election campaigning.

“There has to be a structure and rules in place to use the social media and [UMSU] has not gone through that process yet,” Safiniuk said.

However, there will be an “all candidates meeting” to decide whether they want to be able to send private messages, through social media, about the elections.

Safiniuk said the all candidates meeting will be an “opportunity for candidates to ask questions.
“At that meeting, the candidates will go through a democratic process of deciding whether they want or don’t want to be able to send private messages to their friends.”

Safiniuk said that his office will be checking Facebook and other social media websites to ensure no one is using them to campaign.

He said that the penalties for using social media would depend on the circumstances of the violation.
“It could range from a slap on the wrist to disqualification.”

By contrast, Lauren Bosc, president of University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, said that social media has a large part to play in mobilizing the student body as members of the student union: “As it happens that many members are online a lot of the time.”

However, as a campaign tool, she noted that it is “not equally accessible to all candidates and members.
“It needs to be governed by guidelines that ensure there is no unfair advantage given to any candidate,” she said.

Tyler Omichinski, one of the candidates for UMSU president position in 2011, said that all three slates
participating in last year’s election discussed the use of social media in the all candidates meeting, and decided that social media should not be included in the election.

Omichinski said that this consensus was largely due to a fear regarding individual privacy being violated.

“The other main concern was the [UMSU] elections as a whole are, unfortunately, as much about popularity as policy,” he said.

“The fear was that the inclusion of social media would simply exacerbate this concern.”

Omichinski said he felt that UMSU elections have an inherent problem with voter turnout, and creative options should be considered to rectify this, but that there are risks to using social media to meet this end.

“The nature of elections for UMSU, last I checked, is that there are a variety of rules which would be nearly impossible to enforce in an online environment,” he said.

To allow social media as part of campaigning, said Safiniuk, UMSU would have to rework the current rules to accommodate social media. He added that if the rules were reworked for the reality of modern elections the inclusion of social media would be accommodated for and included.

Ally Beauchesne, another ex candidate for vice-president (student services), commented that one of the reasons candidates voted not to use social media was because of the fear that they will attack each other online.

“Looking back on it now, there was a lot of negative talk about all the slates in general even though we were unable to use social media. I think that the benefits of its use would definitely outweigh any negative experiences,” Beauchesne said.

Other student association elections at the U of M have allowed the use of social media.

Hayley Johnston, a past candidate for vice-president position in the 2012 Commerce Students’ Association (CSA) elections, said social media was allowed to a certain extent for their CSA’s election campaign.

Johnstone said candidates were allowed to publicly post on Facebook or twitter to promote events to create awareness, “but nothing was allowed to be posted in private groups on Facebook to convince members to vote for a particular individual.”

Johnston said that she has used Facebook to post her campaign pictures, update statuses and create events to invite friends.

The federal government recently revised election laws surrounding social media, to allow posting election results via sites such as Twitter and Facebook before the polls close. This had previously been banned under section 329 of the Canada Elections Act.

The change was announced, via Twitter on Jan. 13, by Conservative MP Tim Uppal, the minister of state for democratic reform.

Diane Benson, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, explained that while Elections Canada has no information that suggests there was “wide disregard” for this rule, the growing use of social media “puts in question not only the practical enforceability of the rule, but also its very intelligibility and usefulness in a world where the distinction between private communication and public transmission is quickly eroding.”

She pointed out that the expansion of web-based communications technology, particularly social media such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, is transforming communications both outside and during election periods.

“Social media and the Internet are conducive to political participation by allowing a broad dissemination of messages at a very low cost,” she said. “The use of new technologies can improve the federal electoral process by enhancing both equality and freedom of expression.”