In December 2016, Mayor Don Iveson posted a picture of a tree on Instagram.
“Love how the late morning sun catches the frosted branches at this time of year,” he wrote, adding hashtags #yegwinter and #goplayoutside.
Followers gushed. “Love a mayor who takes pictures of trees in the morning!” one commented on the photo. “Good for you for observing beautiful things around you,” wrote another.
When Iveson asked his Instagram legion whether he should keep his playoff beard, followers called him a “babe” and tagged comments with #mancrush, #hunkymayor and #handsomestmayorever. Sifting through his social media posts, it’s difficult to find much that polarizes his followers. Aside from hot-button issues like bike lanes, a photo of fast-food Japanese takeout is among the more controversial posts. Iveson snapped a pic of his lunch and opined that sometimes it’s “what a body needs.”
Some felt styrofoam-boxed food was out of character for the urbane mayor. “Can’t wait for the Taco Time post. Arby’s is gonna blow his mind son” read one cheeky reply. But others put a finer point on things: “You’re the mayor of Edmonton and you’re sharing lunch posts about Edo Japan?” commented one. It’s a fair comment, and a common question. Why does the mayor of one of Canada’s biggest cities take time to post stuff from his everyday life on social media?
Social media has become an essential way for politicians to market themselves as accessible, even if, in fact, they aren’t. Social media allows them to engage targeted swaths of the electorate – particularly, in the case of Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, young people. But as politicians scramble to sell a more “real” version of themselves, to be always “on” and connected, the jury is out on whether it translates into votes and whether the cost, and risk, are worth the venture.
Since being elected mayor of Edmonton in 2013, Iveson has enjoyed high approval ratings and a reputation for bringing people together. With a style former mayoral candidate and councillor Karen Leibovici calls “non-confrontational,” he’s made progress on many files including transit funding, unifying the metro region and fixing Edmonton’s notorious potholes. But his first four years were far from smooth. There were major delays on the Walterdale and 102 Avenue bridges, and the Metro LRT Line. Infill and bike-lane policies remain controversial. Property taxes continue to rise. Yet none of these issues tarnished Iveson enough to draw out a legitimate mayoral challenger for the October 2017 election.
“For one reason or another, the snafus that have bedevilled his council haven’t really stuck to him,” said John Brennan, a political analyst who was let go by Iveson in 2016 after serving as his strategic adviser for three years. “He’s a very skilled politician – he’s well-spoken, he’s good on television, he’s good on radio.” Brennan spoke with Avenue a few weeks before Iveson won his second term in October, receiving 73.6 per cent of the vote. “I think possible big-name challengers looked at it and, given his approval and favourable ratings, decided not to throw their hats in the ring, because they didn’t think they could win,” Brennan said. It’s a reasonable conclusion. With his popularity and youthful brand, Iveson is a formidable political foe.
In an interview with Avenue during his re-election campaign, Iveson showed his tact for highlighting his accomplishments and downplaying criticisms. On defence, he subtly deflected. On offence, he wasn’t subtle at all. At all times, he was confident.
“Four years ago Edmontonians decided to move ahead confidently, by electing the council and me,” he said over cappuccino at Monument Coffee Bar, a new Jasper Avenue coffee joint where the sound system was playing a Spotify genre called “chill indie.” He shifted questions on the bridge delays and Metro Line problems to previous administration and council.
“I inherited a broken culture at City Hall in terms of accountability and risk tolerance four years ago. We’re halfway through fixing it,” he said. Under Iveson’s leadership, council fired former city manager Simon Farbrother, and transportation boss Dorian Wandzura resigned.
“All of the (above) projects, though they were late, were on or under budget,” the mayor added.
And on bike-lane, LRT and traffic congestion controversies, he offered a growing-pains argument.
“Every city goes through this. It’s a sign of growth, it’s a sign of progress. It’s a good problem to have … The big cities that are worth living in are so big that you can’t [drive across them in 15 minutes],” he said, citing Hong Kong, Paris and Helsinki as examples. “When you need big city infrastructure to go with your big city confidence, that’s change. That’s big change. It’s different than what people remember when we were a city of half a million, which we were not long ago.”
It’s clear Iveson genuinely believes in Edmonton, and that it can become the cosmopolitan centre he dreams of. As his rhetoric grew more passionate, his cheeks flushed red. Or maybe it was the cappuccino.
University of Alberta political scientist James Lightbody wonders whether people overestimate the clout of Iveson’s image. Edmontonians tend to handily grant sitting mayors a second term, he says. “It takes time for a confederation of grievances to build up.” Running unopposed by any significant councillor helped Iveson, too. “There’s no linchpin for a populist revolt. There’s no alternative vision to what Don Iveson is selling.”
“He is not unpopular,” Lightbody admits, before affording the mayor’s image some credence. “He’s an accomplished politician. That’s all he’s done in his life. He’s very smooth and he has had few genuine missteps. He’s (also) very connected. That is important.”
Brennan distills it further, saying Iveson’s image and online presence can’t be overlooked when considering his popularity. “He’s handsome, he’s polished. He looks good and he presents himself well.”
Ward 11 City Councillor Mike Nickel doesn’t much care for Twitter. He prefers the “ground game,” or what he also calls “retail” politics – connecting with citizens on the doorstep and at town halls. Debates on Twitter too often descend into vitriol. “It just goes off the rails,” says the veteran Edmonton councillor, who’s 52. Nickel got 55 per cent of the vote in Ward 11 in October’s election. His race was not close; Keren Tang, who came second to Nickel, had 4,787 less votes.
But, at 38, Iveson represents a different generation. He believes the electorate has a reasonable expectation for their leaders to use social media. It comes naturally to him. During the election campaign, though he was widely favoured to win, Iveson used Twitter many times a day to pump his platform, announce policy proposals, flog campaign swag and salute his teams of young adult door-knockers. He admits Twitter can be “poisonous” at times, but sees value in it.
“It can be a useful insight into what people are thinking,” he said. “It can be a fun way to interact with the 932,465 people I work for.”
Iveson controls his own Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat accounts, but gets help from his staff to keep his Facebook page up to date. “I haven’t been able to wrap my head around Snapchat – it’s where the kids are, and there’s no other way to get to them,” he told Avenue. He claims his Instagram is inspired by Peter Kageyama, an American author who writes about people’s love affairs with their cities.
“My Instagram is a series of love notes to Edmonton and to public service,” Iveson said.
“It’s not very deliberately curated. It’s just what’s going on that day.”
But Brennan differs with his former boss on that point. “Don came into office social media savvy,” said Brennan. “He’s smart – he doesn’t do stupid things on Twitter like Donald Trump does.”
Social media, said Brennan, is important to the demographics that like Iveson the most – people in their 20s and 30s. An October 2016 poll conducted by Mainstreet Research found Iveson’s approval rating was strongest among 18- to 34-year-olds, and stronger among women than men. In fairness, statistics show he also fairly locked up the senior-citizen vote, too. It’s that he captured both, in such wide swaths, that’s remarkable. “[Young people] are also all on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. He’s on all the time because he’s part of that generation too,” said Brennan. “It certainly doesn’t hurt him. I think it helps him.”
Nathan Manning lectures at England’s University of York and studies politics and social media. He is the lead author of a study that argues that social media allows politicians to “cultivate authenticity.” In the age of what Manning calls “informalization,” that’s crucial. Relationships between politicians and voters were once aligned to social class.
Today, politicians are expected to relate to every subset of the electorate. One way they do that is by presenting their supposedly authentic, private selves in online public forums. The study suggests social media offers a new platform of authenticity that is “blurring the public/private divide.”
“Celebrities’ and politicians’ social media posts are often finely crafted and managed,” Manning says, in an email interview. “We don’t just happen to express ourselves in relaxed, authentic and genuine ways. We learn these behaviours. In the case of public figures, they’re typically quite conscious and deliberate.”
Perhaps it’s a game that people, not just modern politicians, play when they decide to share their so-called private lives with the world. In the Twitter age, each user is a reality star in his or her own social-media show, highlighting the shiny and happy moments of life, while omitting the mundane or ugly parts. In his paper, Manning writes that the informalization of social life doesn’t mean anything goes, and cites ones of many studies that found spending too much time on social media can make people feel more lonely. In September, a viral article in The Atlantic asked, in its title, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Psychologist Jean M. Twenge remarks “There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” That said, social media use is not on the decline. Whether we like it or not, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are still where the people are, providing easy access for politicians to a potential audience of millions.
Manning says positive personas can actually help politicians dodge accountability for negative issues.
“There’s no doubt that their public image shapes the interpretation of politicians’ actions. Bill Clinton’s popularity bump in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal is a good example. Barack Obama’s image as a statesman and internationalist helped deflect attention away from his government’s extensive use of drone warfare. In the U.K., politicians like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are despised by many people, but for many others they’re seen as fun or real.”
The modern political game has become entrenched in celebrity – another cohort that embraces social media. Like celebrities, politicians like to portray themselves as energetic and youthful. Some gain rockstar status – see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is sought after for selfies. He made a tearful statement the morning after the death of Canadian rock star Gord Downie, showing Canada a vulnerable side.
“I see Don Iveson and Justin Trudeau as very similar in the use of politics and social media,” Brennan says. Both leaders are on the younger end of Generation X (Trudeau is 45 years old), family men with conventional good looks, adorable children and stylish, community-minded wives with their own Instagram accounts (Iveson’s wife, Sarah Chan, 37, is a more avid user than Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, 42).
Unlike Trudeau, Iveson hasn’t posed for Vogue (yet), but could have fit in with Vanity Fair‘s recent assessment of Trudeau and French president Emmanuel Macron as “inheritors of Kennedy charisma and healthy, inspiring hair” who have “outclassed and outglammed” the President of the United States, Donald Trump.
“I do think it’s a youth thing,” says Tamara Small, a University of Guelph political science professor who studies social media. “People ascribe things to youth, whether they’re fair or unfair. There’s a sense of energy and vitality.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, 45, is the Canadian mayor with the most followers – 378,000+; he narrowly hung onto office in October. Jagmeet Singh, 38, rode to victory as leader of the federal NDP on the image of being a refreshing young personality. But there’s a balance to be struck for politicians in the online age. If they come across too hip, they risk “undermining their integrity and authority and open themselves up to accusations of over-sharing,” Manning warns in his study. If they eschew social media they could be seen as being out of touch. It’s ironic then that one of most penetrating political social media accounts in North America makes no effort to strike any balance. President Trump’s use of Twitter is much lampooned, but is inarguably uncultivated and authentic. For all the time and effort politicians put into the endless churn of social media, it’s not clear if it actually sways more people to pay attention to them or support them. Small doubts it. “It’s window-dressing. Do I think [a politician] would be just as popular without it? Most of the time, more often yes than no. It’s helpful; it’s not a panacea.”
And there are serious questions being raised about the impact social media is having on the quality of political debate. Consider that Evan Williams – one of the founders of Twitter – recently said the election of Trump is proof that social media is working to “dumb down the entire world.”
Iveson, too, recognizes the limitations of the Twitter format. “Almost every decision we make at City Hall is more complex than 140 characters.”
It’s a Wednesday night in September at the Citadel Theatre, and Don Iveson is holding a fundraiser called “Mini Mean Tweets” with improv troupe Rapid Fire Theatre. For $40 a head, 180 attendees get within spitball-throwing distance of the mayor of Edmonton. No one is searching bags at the door. A lone security guard stands in the lobby. Inside, the cozy theatre has the homey air of a campus pub, the heady smell of alcohol in the air.
Iveson and Chan look like they feel at home in this crowd of mostly under-40s and play along convincingly with the skits – including Iveson’s laudable portrayal of a wrecking ball. The crowd whoops as peppy actors improvise on infill and bike lanes. Iveson reads out some “mean” tweets which, by Twitter standards, are not very mean. At the end Iveson, in casual khakis and sneakers, thanks everyone, pumps his wife’s charity drive, and invites people to buy campaign swag. “Running for mayor is reeeaallly expensive,” he says. At Monument Coffee Bar the following week, he admits it’s also “exhausting.”
“It’s not as glamourous as it looks, put it that way,” he says, revealing he OK’d this recent run for mayor with his eight-year-old son, Dexter. Often, Iveson has breakfast with Dexter and his five-year-old sister, Alice, and walks them to school. “Then at least if I’m not home to tuck them in, at least I’ve seen them that day,” he says.
The mean tweets show lets out at 10:40 p.m.. The exuberant crowd filters back into the lobby and waits for Iveson. The mayor has not disappointed. “I am a huge fan,” says Amy Stewart, a 35-year-old server. “He’s young, super personable. He really cares and it feels like he listens to people.” Stewart says Iveson has turned Edmonton into a city people are proud to call home. “We see the difference he has made to Edmonton.” She says the improv show “really showcased his personality – his ableness to be cool and be one of us.” Some reviews, appropriately, appeared on Twitter. “How hillarious was @doniveson at @theatresports tonight for #meantweets! our mayor is so suave” @jess_brandbloom tweeted. “The @doniveson & @theatresports combo is a brilliant one. Municipal politics AND jokes all in one?! Perfection” @shereenzink tweeted. If humour and politics aren’t intuitively synonymous, Iveson’s proven it doesn’t hurt. Iveson has his coat on as he and Chan mingle with the waiting crowd. At 11 p.m., they head out, hand-in-hand, through the empty atrium into the night. They’re alone – no security detail, no entourage. Presumably, they’re returning home to their sleeping children, back across the public-private divide that, however blurry, still exists.