The online presence of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)election campaigns has been growing with each successive election. The Varsity spoke with candidates from Demand Better, Reboot UofT, Whomst’d’ve UofT, and independent candidate Anne Boucher on their digital strategies. We the Students was unavailable for a live interview and replied to The Varsity’s requests over email.
Demand Better is campaigning on a wide range of social media platforms in this year’s elections, with a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and WeChat, a Chinese social media website. Mathias Memmel, Demand Better’s presidential candidate, says that the slate’s social media presence is handled by a team of volunteers and the slate had budgeted $1500 for their online campaign, including web hosting, Facebook, and Snapchat advertisements — about half as much as the cost of printing posters.
Memmel, who also campaigned in last year’s elections with the Hello UofT slate, noted that there has been a “shift” towards online campaigning.
“I printed… fewer [posters] this year than I did last year. And that’s just on the basis that the Facebook posts gain more attraction and more engagement than a bunch of posters. I don’t know actually how much people read the posters if I’m being perfectly honest,” he said, noting that the use of posters has become “more of a psychological battle.”
Whomst’d’ve’s candidate for Vice-President Professional Faculties, Veronika Potylitsina, also noted an apparent “feud” over posters. Her slate chose not to have posters, because they felt “weird” being reimbursed by the UTSU for running a satirical campaign.
Potylitsina believes that the satirical nature of her slate has resonated with people who are “tired of the whole slate politics” and this has resulted in supporters posting up memes.
“We actually have not made our own memes, I guess. A lot of the students have been engaging by creating their own since we’ve started running,” she said.
Potylitsina also said that the slate debated whether to specify that the memes were created by arms-length parties in order to avoid being penalized with demerit points.
“There’s a fine line but nobody has reported us so I guess it’s ok,” she said.
In contrast, Jessica Leung, Reboot’s candidate for Vice-President Internal, said that the slate first started making its own memes for “boosting group morale,” and then decided to share them “to connect with students.”
While their memes have gotten attention, Leung says that they were “not seeing the engagement that [they] expected.”
“That’s how it is with memes, you don’t just design a viral thing. It’s really difficult to think about what picks up and resonates with people,” Leung explained, adding, “It was a lot of fun for us to work on.”
Leung also said that Reboot was “planning on switching much more heavily towards digital” campaigning and that the change was motivated by allegations of the slate’s posters being taken down and the risk of incurring more demerit points.
Reboot has spent $6000 on print materials and has paid students to create their website.
“Facebook posts and advertising are substantially cheaper… but we don’t fully quite understand the potential of using them yet, because this is our first time running such a campaign,” Leung explained.
Demand Better is also using targeted Facebook advertisements. Memmel described an example in which the slate slate ensures ads with platform points like a tuition increase cap reaches international students.
“We don’t have to waste our money or time advertising that to domestic students whom it doesn’t benefit, right? So we’re very strategic in terms of our ads, as opposed to running multiple, running few large campaigns, we prefer to run hundreds of small campaigns targeted at small communities,” said Memmel.
Anne Boucher, independent candidate for Vice-President External, knows that larger-scale campaigns run by slates puts her at a disadvantage “because you have more people working together, figuring out what’s the best thing we could be doing today online. So you have a lot of people who can contribute ideas… I can ask some friends what they think I should post but they don’t have contacts or anything,” Boucher said.
Boucher restricts her campaign to Facebook and Reddit, spending $100 on Facebook advertisements for her page and self-shot video.
“I didn’t want to expand too much, because I knew that I would probably just be doing a little bit of each, which is not effective and I thought that sticking to a few things fully would probably have better results,” Boucher explained.
However, Boucher believes that her disadvantage in online campaigning pales in comparison to the disadvantage she has in physical campaigning. “People who have a full team, who are each campaigning, at the end of the day, they could be taking their time with it and they would still reach more people than I would,” she said, adding that with social media, she “just [had] to be on ball and come up with good ideas.”
Boucher has also made use of posters for her campaign.
While Boucher had to ask a friend to build her website, We the Students hired Splash Effect, a marketing agency, to build theirs.
Andre Fast, We the Students’ candidate for President, explained the slate’s hire: “Given the newer and shorter nomination period, it is too much to ask a full-time student to volunteer their time to develop a campaign website in less than a week so we hired a student from SplashEffect to design our website,” he said. This year’s nomination period lasted eight days, compared to last year’s 12 day nomination period.
Memmel argued that We the Students’ use of an “outside media company” is “both in violation of the EPC and immoral.” Boucher’s and all the other slates’ websites were built by U of T students.
Fast has not replied to requests to clarify if the student from SplashEffect who designed the website is a UTSU member.
The Varsity has not been able to find any posters, social media accounts, or a website for independent presidential candidate Joshua Hands, with the exception of one post on the U of T subreddit. The Varsity’s repeated attempts to reach out to Hands have been unsuccessful.