Who Gets a Platform? Media Exposure and Online Engagement

April 9, 2024
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Who Gets a Platform? Media Exposure and Online Engagement
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⬅ Back to: Engagement and Abuse on Toronto's Digital Campaign Trail: The 2023 Toronto Mayoral By-election Report

Chloe Brown and Anthony Furey were among the most successful mayoral candidates, but as political outsiders, they faced barriers breaking into media opportunities.

In an election with 102 candidates, how do we collectively begin to define and decide who are “front-runners” or “serious candidates” and separate them from the rest? It’s a messy process that is not always equitable. In this particularly stacked election, our findings suggest that media exposure played an important role in shaping online conversations as well as election results. Debate opportunities, profiles in major print media, and television features attracted increased engagement online, but with this often came increased volumes of abuse. 

Chloe Brown, a candidate who was not identified as a “front-runner” and therefore did not receive substantial media exposure, attracted significant online engagement. Much of this engagement was abuse free, signalling the potential for healthy civic conversations on municipal issues online. At the same time, this substantive digital engagement did not then translate into greater media opportunities, or stronger election results. Even though Brown cultivated a supportive voter base over the last two municipal elections, her lack of legacy media exposure likely prevented her from reaching wider audiences and competing at the same level as front-running candidates. Her experience indicates the need for further inquiry into how front-runners are decided, the pre-existing financial and social capital required for municipal political success, and the relationship between online engagement, abuse, and increased media exposure.

The 2022 municipal election

In the 2022 Toronto municipal election, policy analyst and activist Chloe Brown placed third in the mayoral race. Brown, then running on a campaign budget of just over $7,000, received 6% of the vote, only behind then-incumbent Mayor John Tory and urbanist Gil Penalosa, whose campaign expenses totaled nearly $2 million and over $300,000, respectively. 

2022 Toronto mayoral election voting results

Chloe Brown was “Chloe-Marie Brown” on the 2022 ballot.

When Tory stepped down as mayor and Penalosa decided not to run again (he put his support behind Olivia Chow), Brown became the most successful candidate from the most recent mayoral race to run in the by-election. Despite this, she was not offered major exposure opportunities, such as debate opportunities and legacy media candidate profiles. Nevertheless, she won seventh place in the competitive by-election, with 18,831 votes or 3% of all voters.

Legacy candidates

Ultimately, of the top eight performing candidates in this election, only two (Anthony Furey and Brown) had not previously held some form of political office. 

City Councillor Brad Bradford was afforded a very different level of exposure than Brown during the election. Bradford is a councillor for Ward 19, and has been in that role since 2018. He was invited to every legacy media debate opportunity, and attended 12 out of the 14 debates that we tracked. He was also profiled by major media outlets alongside other candidates who were polling much higher in opinion polls, and throughout the election was framed as a front-runner, one of the top candidates to watch. 

Brown finished in seventh place with 18,831 votes, and Bradford finished in eighth place with 9,254 votes, less than half Brown’s total. We don’t draw this comparison between Bradford and Brown to suggest Bradford should not have been included in these aforementioned opportunities, but rather to ask the question: if Bradford received such consistent public profiling, why didn’t Brown? If placing third in the last mayoral race won’t get you into the mainstream election conversation, what will?

Legacy media legitimization

Debates, events, and media opportunities influence public opinion and voter engagement. They are one of the key ways that the general public can learn about candidates’ platforms. While it is clearly not feasible to invite 102 candidates to a debate, or feature them all substantively in media coverage, we need to understand how front-running candidates are established, why they are offered certain opportunities, and if these processes are equitable and reflect all demographics of voters. 

Brown was left out of candidate profiles published by legacy news outlets such as the Toronto Star, CBC News, The Globe and Mail, CTV News, and CP24, and was not included in the Toronto Star’s Vote Compass initiative. Brown’s exclusion from these outlets likely significantly limited the public’s knowledge of her platform and candidacy. In articles published by the Toronto Star between May 13 and June 26, 2023, Brown is mentioned in 19 of them. Anthony Furey is mentioned in 50. The other six of the top eight mayoral candidates were each mentioned in over 113 or more different articles. 

Furey was included in only one of the aforementioned media profiles but as the election progressed, he received more media exposure. Furey, unlike Brown, had the benefit of having a comparatively larger public profile prior to politics, as he was a Toronto Sun columnist and radio host for AM640 Toronto. Furey’s media connections may have helped him access exposure opportunities later in the election period, and help legitimize him as a candidate.

Debates are another form of media exposure that can also legitimize and grant a candidate exposure. Our federal and Ontario election SAMbot reports have shown that major debates have coincided with some of the highest engagement on social media, suggesting the importance of debates in spurring online discussion and awareness of candidate’s policy platforms — and that exclusion from such events could impact online and offline engagement. We often consider digital and physical worlds as separate spheres, but what occurs both on and offline are part of one collective civic dialogue.

Out of 14 debates, Brown was present at three (hosted by Operation Black Vote Canada, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons with Zoomer Radio, and Now Toronto), none of which were hosted by what we would identify as legacy media outlets. Five debates were either hosted, cohosted, or broadcast by legacy media outlets, those outlets being CityNews, TVO, the Toronto Star, CBC, and CP24. All five of these debates used recent public opinion polling data to decide which candidates would be invited to participate; Brown was not invited to any of these five legacy media debates.

Brown had the opportunity to debate with front-runners Chow and Saunders only twice, and Bailão once. Of the top eight highest-voted candidates, all candidates participated in between 10-14 debates, aside from Furey (four) and Brown (three). 

Similar to Brown, Furey was not included in debates early on in the election. However, he was invited to the last legacy media debate hosted by CP24 and Newstalk 1010 on June 15 because his polling numbers had increased. Legacy media’s dependence on using opinion polling data to decide which candidates are invited to major debates can be problematic — relying on only polling data can restrict outsider candidates like Furey and Brown from reaching wider audiences, and modern polling data collection methods have been shown to be restrictive, and potentially not representative of many demographics of voters.

Toronto has a vibrant local media scene, with outlets like The Local, The Green Line, Now Toronto and Spacing covering local Toronto politics. These outlets are vital, and our focus on legacy media publications isn’t intended to invalidate their contributions. However, legacy media organizations have massive reach and power across multiple mediums, and can reach large audiences of diverse demographics to a greater extent, which is why their publications and behaviour are of such significant importance during an election.

Six of the top eight candidates (Bailão, Bradford, Chow, Hunter, Matlow, and Saunders) were invited to all five debates we would consider to be hosted in part or broadcasted by legacy media outlets. These six candidates took part in all five debates, except for Bradford, who did not attend the June 6 CBC debate due to the birth of his child.

2023 Toronto mayoral by-election: debate attendance

Offline exposure and the impact on online engagement

Anthony Furey’s polling results continued to improve after he was included in the June 15 debate, as did his Twitter engagement. While other candidates’ online engagement held consistent or rose steadily, Furey’s engagement reached sudden new heights compared to his earlier engagement statistics. In the final four days of the election, Furey had the second- or third-highest engagement on Twitter among all candidates each day. From May 13 to June 14, Furey was among the top three-most engaged with candidates of the day 21% of the time; from June 15 to June 26, it was 50% of the time.

Tweets per day: Furey and Brown

Furey’s Twitter engagement rose steadily and sharply after June 15, which coincides with his inclusion in the CP24 hosted debate, and higher polling numbers. Brown’s engagement, however, remained mostly consistent across the entire election.

Furey’s increase in Twitter engagement, improved performance in polling results, and appearance at the June 15 debate were all roughly correlated, suggesting the potential power of being legitimized as a candidate by legacy media opportunities.

Meanwhile, Brown’s engagement stayed fairly consistent across the course of the election, compared to other candidates. Interestingly, of the top nine performing candidates in the election, Brown had the lowest volume of abuse, only receiving 19 abusive tweets, and the lowest proportion of abuse among them by a significant margin, with 0.6% of tweets being abusive. Comparatively, she didn’t have significantly lower amounts of online engagement than other candidates (she received more tweets, for example, than sixth-place candidate Mitzie Hunter), yet her engagement was largely abuse free, in comparison to other candidates. 

Relatedly, of those nine candidates, Brown had by far the lowest rate of tweets coming from accounts with numerical usernames. While this is not a firm metric to evaluate online discourse, it does signal that tweets received by Brown were more likely to be from actual people who were using public profiles, were long-time Twitter users, and were not bots.

Top nine candidates: Percentage of tweets from users with numerical usernames

We identify a username as being a “numerical username” if there are five or more numbers present at the end of a username (e.g. torontopoliticsfan45839). Accounts with numerical suffixes like this may be users who are trying to remain anonymous, are new, have recently signed up for Twitter (maybe because they’re new to the platform, or maybe because their account has been recently banned from Twitter and they have created a new one in response), are posting from a “alternative” or “burner” account, or are bot accounts that have been generated automatically or en masse. While having a numerical username is not necessarily evidence of a bot, users with nefarious or abusive intent or bots tend to use numerical usernames.

Brown’s low levels of abuse and amount of replies from numerical accounts may have permitted more positive and constructive discussion in her Twitter replies. However, at the same time, this space for more positive civic dialogue may be correlated with Brown receiving comparatively lower exposure as a candidate.

Fiscal efficiency

Brown spent just over $54,000 on her campaign, averaging about $2.87 spent per vote received. Among the top eight candidates, Brown’s campaign was the most fiscally efficient — four to twenty-nine times more efficient than candidates who had similar election results.

Campaign expenses by candidate (among top eight candidates)

Dollar per vote by candidate (among top eight candidates)

Fiscal efficiency is a positive thing, but for candidates like Brown, it’s also a sign of unequal access to political capital (something Brown herself has discussed). Candidates with more established relationships with well-connected donors can more easily raise funds early on in an election, thus giving them more opportunities to hire staff, develop and purchase advertising materials, and host events, which in turn helps legitimize them as candidates. For outsider candidates like Brown, competing against that political capital in the arena of campaign donations adds another challenge to running a competitive race in a municipal election.

Exploring media exposure and online engagement in this by-election reveals an interesting dynamic between the two; through Brown, we saw that a candidate may attract online engagement despite not receiving substantial media exposure, and that civic dialogue on the digital campaign trail is not always shaped by high levels of abuse. While this is an encouraging case study of the potential for healthy municipal civic dialogue online, it is important to note that this digital engagement did not then open up more substantive media opportunities for Brown, and her online engagement did not grow over the course of the election (as Furey’s did). 

Understanding the relationship between online engagement, media exposure, and the identification of “front-runner” candidates is crucial if we want to support a more accessible, competitive, and diverse democracy. As it stands, candidates who are political outsiders and do not have pre-existing political networks, wealth, and media connections, are at a serious disadvantage in stacked elections like the Toronto by-election. To support a more diverse and representative cohort of municipal politicians, we need to seriously consider how “front-runner” candidates are selected — and possible electoral reform opportunities to facilitate the campaigns of candidates who have comparatively fewer financial resources, and are not already established elected officials with long careers.

For more information about our research approach see our methodology section and data release

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