It’s Not Easy Being ‘Prime Minister Selfie’

The day was January 12, 2017 and Justin Trudeau was holding his first town hall event of the year. Unlike most political Q&A’s, this one was held entirely on Snapchat. The event, like many moments featuring Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister, quickly went “viral.”

Beaming through the small mobile camera of his government-issued iPhone, the 45-year-old Trudeau fielded questions ranging from how he’s going to make college more affordable for low and middle income students, to what his government is doing to address violence against women in indigenous communities.

Millennial-focused events like this one are just one of the many ways Trudeau’s government is using digital media to connect with voters across Canada – while dazzling millions of fans around the world.

Photo: @JustinTrudeau/Twitter

Whether he’s doing one-handed push-ups with Canada’s Invictus Games team, cuddling panda cubs at the Toronto zoo, or accidently crashing a beach wedding ceremony with a shirtless photo-bomb, there seems to be no shortage of ‘viral moments’ for Trudeau. The prime minister’s prolific social media presence clearly seems to be paying dividends. A year after his government took office, Trudeau’s approval rating stood at 67 percent, a record streak. Among young people, it was a whopping 78 percent.

Media marketers and ordinary citizens alike hailed Trudeau’s team’s success at marketing the prime minister.

“I think Trudeau and his team have been very successful in how they’ve approached his strategy to reach out to Canadians,” said Sachi Wickramsinghe from Vancouver. “It goes along with his whole ‘sunny ways’ ethos.”

Evan Solomon of Maclean’s magazine dubbed Trudeau Canada’s “first ‘Viral PM’” who is apt at  “creating political ‘moments’ specifically so they become shareable.” While Jenna Brayton, who worked on digital communications in the Obama White House called Trudeau’s social media presence “the gold standard.”

Many experts credit Trudeau’s social media fluency as crucial to his 2015 electoral success. His youthful persona contrasted sharply with the dour seriousness of his two rivals, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair. Voters, many of whom were wooed by Mr. Trudeau’s flattering image and promise of “sunny ways,” backed Trudeau’s Liberal Party by wide margins, delivering it a landslide victory and a majority of seats in Parliament.

Youth turnout was believed to be crucial to that success. One study estimated that voter turnout among 18-to-25-year-olds increased 12 percentage points in that election. A further 66 percent of young Canadians said they felt they could relate to Mr. Trudeau.

Though still popular, not everyone has been on board with the social media frenzy surrounding Trudeau, which is now entering its second year. Some believe the viral coverage of photogenic prime minister has become over-saturated.

“I think now, having been a year from his election, that shine has faded,” Wickramsinghe added. “You’re starting to see that there is a lot of flash but, especially here on the West Coast, you also see [Trudeau and the Liberal government] not keeping their campaign promises.”

Others were much more critical.

“I don’t think Justin Trudeau’s web strategy convinced anyone except those who vote solely based on good looks,” said a Canadian blogger who has been critical of Trudeau.  “The only aspect I can say worked is the ‘selfie.’ [Trudeau] takes a lot of selfies with adoring fans. They lap it up. It breeds commitment, in my opinion.”

The student went on to mention that a lot of the attention paid to Trudeau’s good looks and viral moments obscures many of the deeper social problems affecting Canada and instead leads outsiders to perceive the country as “some kind of paradise.”

The Liberal government has taken a hit in its favorability since the start of this year, especially after it reneged on one of its major campaign promises to reform the country’s electoral system.

Trudeau’s government has also been faulted for breaking some of the promises it made to the country’s indigenous peoples when it announced that it will not fully implement the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and approved several dam and pipeline projects with only limited consent from the affected tribes.  
Though his approval rating has dipped since the start of this year, Trudeau remains as popular now as other prime ministers have been at this point in their premiership. And the social media frenzy shows no signs of abating. Just last week, new photos surfaced of Trudeau as a young man and were promptly spread around the internet. While his critics may be growing, “Prime Minister Selfie” still has yet to lose that viral charm.

[Cover Photo: Blair Gable, Reuters]

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