How to build a viral hashtag during an election: Four useful lessons from #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans

Alberta’s 2015 provincial election was dubbed the “clever hashtag election” and witnessed the overthrow of a multi-decade Progressive Conservative dynasty. There’s clearly something to learn here as we wade into a Canadian federal election at a time when nearly six out of ten Canadians over voting age have a Facebook account, a quarter use Twitter, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to interact with unvetted humans at campaign events.

While we would be the first to say that hashtags don’t determine electoral outcomes, they do have the ability to initiate and drive the public political conversations that shape them. So what can we learn from the specific popularity of #prenticeblamesalbertans when it comes to turning a politician’s verbal missteps on the campaign trail into social media gold? And what can we glean more broadly about some of the key ingredients for political-conversation-mobilizing, electoral-outcome-shaping hashtag success?

First, a quick hashtag history.

CBC News, Friday March 5, 2015 

Hashtag history: Prentice blames Albertans on CBC radio

Three hours after Jim Prentice’s March 4, 2015 appearance on a CBC radio call-in show, #prenticeblamesalbertans was trending on Twitter. 

During the hashtag-inciting radio interview the PC Premier pronounced that Albertans, “need only look in the mirror” to find the appropriate people to blame for the province’s financial situation. Of course, he made no mention of his party’s ill-advised economic policies that had intentionally starved Alberta of revenues for public services. “Basically, all of us have had the best of everything” he said, “and have not had to pay for what it costs.”

The sentiment fuelled resentment among Albertans contending with underfunded K-12 schools and hospitals regularly at overcapacity. Far from what Prentice described as “the best of everything”.  

Why #Prenticeblamesalbertans Worked: 

1. Making meaning from a misstep
If a politician makes a blunder on the campaign trail and no one’s there to hashtag it, does it really make a sound? Yes. But an effective hashtag can frame the statements to mean something, and social media platforms can amplify that meaningful noise. 

#Prenticeblamesalbertans took right-wing messaging that leaned heavily on boot strap pulling and individual responsibility and stripped it of fatherly benevolence.  In doing so it effectively turned the message’s carefully massaged subtext (of blame) into intelligible and shareable text. The three word hashtag both framed the comments as a PC abdication of responsibility and an entitled deflection of blame towards every day Albertans.

Prentice made the classic campaign mistake of appearing to blame the victim and the hashtag caught him in the act. The rapid-fire nature of social media then successfully circulated this framing until it became part of the political vocabulary of the election. 

2. Early adoption by opposition parties

Opposition parties were also quick to further cement the narrative of angry Albertans being blamed by their Premier. Without missing a beat, both the NDP and the Wildrose issued statements the day after the interview:

Statement from Rachel Notley (NDP), Mar. 5, 2015                                              

Statement from Rachel Notley (NDP), Mar. 5, 2015                                              

Statement from Heather Forsyth (Wildrose), Mar. 5, 2015

Statement from Heather Forsyth (Wildrose), Mar. 5, 2015

3. Invites participation from ordinary people (not just partisan hacks)

Instead of acting as a hashtag solely for categorizing tweets, #prenticeblamesalbertans mobilized voters by providing a participatory social outlet for public anger. Albertans and Canadians used the hashtag to mock Prentice and the PCs by tweeting what they felt were equally absurd things to pin on Albertans.

Because the hashtag was part of a cheeky twitter activity -- rather than just a passive cataloguing of tweets about a certain topic -- #prenticeblamesalbertans had legs it would not have otherwise had.

4. Initiated by a social media influencer

#Prenticeblamesalbertans was also an example of the power of a social media "influencer" leveraging their strong following to drive a political conversation. This particular hashtag was the brainchild of local Alberta author Marty Chan

With more than 6,000 twitter followers, Chan was able to reach enough people to ensure the hashtag went viral. 

Despite Prentice's insistence following the radio interview that he "never said Albertans are the problem," the framing stuck and the hashtag thrived. The Alberta NDP went on to win a majority government, a defeated Prentice resigned from his lowly MLA gig and retired from politics altogether. Marty Chan continues to tweet.