Keith Beardsley’s View From the Hill – Keystone XL Project – January 19, 2012

CFN – Mounting opposition to the Keystone XL project shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media, any government (both politicians and bureaucrats) is at a disadvantage when they promote a policy or back a decision.

Every government decision (not just environmental ones) impacts on someone. Every decision will have both supporters and detractors. In the past a government could fight back on a fairly level playing field. Press releases, statements or interviews with ministers guaranteed them a place in the news cycle of the day. The opposing side, for example environmentalists, was limited to the same news outlets. With the general public relying on print, radio or TV news for their information, government officials could counter opposition claims made in the same news sources.

Governments are generally limited to making fairly factual commentary. They talk about jobs created and the importance of a decision to the economy. This is pretty dry stuff and they are not appealing to the emotional side of an issue. Whenever they try to appeal on a more emotional level and ramp up their language to talk about “foreign money”, or “radical groups” or Hollywood stars interfering in Canadian affairs there is a media and public backlash.

Those opposing a government decision now have many more tools at their disposal than existed 10 years ago. Opposition groups can organize and protest much more quickly. Any delay in an approval process allows them to use their resources and expand their base of support in unprecedented volume. Nor in this day and age of instant worldwide communication should any government or party in power, be surprised at how quickly opposition can mount to a government decision. Equally there should be no surprise that such opposition extends beyond their borders and that fundraising becomes international and is no longer dependent on local resources.

Social media allows opponents to get their message out with a few clicks of a mouse. No longer is it necessary to mail out petitions or letters asking for people’s support. Instead thousands of emails can go out in an instant. Groups appeal to the emotional side of an issue and this is the side that people respond too. While a government argues facts, figures and economic benefits, groups argue on an emotional level. In political terms we used to refer to this as appealing to the head or heart, with the heart usually winning. Election campaigns and how political parties craft their messaging are a good example of this in action.

We saw this in Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Every speech he gave appealed to the emotional side of his audience. Plus as demonstrated at the recent Liberal convention, his team made extensive use of the social media resources at their disposal for engaging voters, recruiting and fundraising. Obama more than most politicians understands the power of that emotional appeal on the electorate.

Today groups send their message out to not just their own members, but to a worldwide audience. This can result in support and action on a scale unseen in the past. Appeals for funds to fight a government decision or asking supporters to contact elected officials can generate a huge response with elected officials being swamped with protest notes. Merkel’s decision last year to cancel support for nuclear energy in Germany would be one example as is the present SOPA protest sweeping the internet. Obama’s decision on Keystone XL should therefore not be a surprise and I would bet with this being an election year that the pressure brought on through social media campaigns had quite an impact on sitting Democrats.

With government being limited with what it can say and with the long sign off procedures that departments must use, government bureaucrats and politicians are at a disadvantage when confronting the fast moving messaging in the world of social media. This is not just a Canadian phenomenon but a worldwide one. The internet and modern communication tools have given a sense of empowerment to people and they are not afraid to let governments know about their displeasure.

Eventually government will become much more nimble and make better use of the resources social media offers, but for now the pendulum has swung towards the people. In a democracy that is not a bad thing.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.

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