Online Political Activity in Canada: The Hype and the Facts

By Small, Tamara A.; Jansen, Harold et al. | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Online Political Activity in Canada: The Hype and the Facts


Small, Tamara A., Jansen, Harold, Bastien, Frederick, Giasson, Thierry, Koop, Royce, Canadian Parliamentary Review


How do Canadians engage with the political content provided by governments, political parties and parliamentarians in Canada? Employing data from the 2014 Canadian Online Citizenship Survey, this article explores how Canadians use digital communications to become informed about, discuss and/or participate in politics. The results suggest that less than half of respondents use the Internet to engage in Canadian politics and while governments, politicians and parties have made extensive forays into cyberspace, politics is a minor online activity for Canadians.

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Over the last two decades, there has been a revolution in communication technology with the widespread adoption of computer networks and digital technologies. There are very few areas of society, economics and culture that have remained untouched by these technologies. Not surprisingly, digital technologies have also infiltrated the world of Canadian politics. They have changed how representative institutions communicate and respond to citizens. In the mid-1990s, government departments, political parties and parliamentarians across Canada began creating websites in order to inform and, potentially, engage citizens. More recently, social media, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, have become mainstays of political communication in Canada. Indeed, as of October 2014, 80 per cent of federal Members of Parliament were using Twitter. One can also follow tweets of the Senate of Canada and the Library of Parliament. While we know much about the online presences of governments, political parties and parliamentarians in Canada, (1) less is known about the extent to which Canadians engage with the political content provided by these different actors. (2)

This paper seeks to address this gap by exploring the online political activity of Canadians - that is, the use of digital communications to become informed about, discuss and/or participate in politics. We draw on data from the 2014 Canadian Online Citizenship Survey. This survey, developed by Online Citizenship/Citoyennete en ligne, (3) was conducted by telephone between February and May 2014. The 2,021 respondents were asked a battery of questions regarding their technological habits and capabilities, as well as questions probing both their online and offline political activities and attitudes. All data presented below are weighted to correct for unequal chance of being selected according to the province and the household size. Here we focus on answering one question: how are Canadians using online communication to engage in democratic citizenship? This is accomplished in two ways; first, we explore whether our respondents make use of political websites and social media offered by governments and traditional political actors. Next, we examine online political participation, that is, the extent to which our respondents participate in political activities, such as signing petitions or posting political commentary, using the Internet. In both cases, we pay special attention to the relationship between young Canadians and online political activity. The results are sobering; less than half of respondents use the Internet to engage in Canadian politics. While governments, politicians and parties have made extensive forays into cyberspace, politics is a minor online activity for Canadians.

Canadian Online Citizenship Survey

Before looking in-depth at online political activity, the data provide a snapshot of the current state of Internet use by Canadians. Not surprisingly, we find that Internet use is ubiquitous in Canada. In the previous 12 months, 87.8 per cent of respondents used the Internet. Indeed, Internet use is part of daily life for most of our respondents. More than 75 per cent of our Internet users went online at least once a day from home, with more than two-thirds of daily online users accessing the Internet several times a day from home. Our respondents access the Internet using a variety of devices; daily use occurred on desktop computers (53. …

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