Social media and the elections: game-changer or minimal impact?

Enter the terms ‘social media’ and ‘politics’ into one search engine and you will get more than one billion results.

Social media is revolutionising the way politicians communicate with citizens, the media, and each other. Self-proclaimed social media experts evangelise about the need to participate and highlight the ‘disruptive power’ of social media on politics. Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns in the United States have achieved almost mythical status as examples to follow.

But what is happening on this side of the Atlantic? Will social media be the key to engaging people in next year’s European Parliament elections campaigns, boosting turnout and influencing the results? Or will it be a damp squib?

The European Parliament is certainly making efforts to ensure that the potential of social media is realised. The EP Newshub has been set up by the Parliament to aggregate Twitter and Facebook messages posted by MEPs (a selection of which appear on this site on each country’s profile page).

More than half of all MEPs (395 in total) are on Twitter and MEPs are using this tool, and Facebook, to share their thoughts and parliamentary work online. The reflex for many MEPs wishing to communicate is now a tweet or a status update, not a press release.

But what about the candidates?

Looking at the lists of candidates that we have already identified on the Europe Decides site, most are already on Twitter:

Twitter - BE
Twitter - DK
Twitter - MT
Twitter - SE
Twitter - UK

Some candidates have gone further, campaigning online for internal party selections (as was the case for many British candidates).

However, activity remains generally nationally- or party-focused.

As highlighted on Europe Decides last week, the race between Sophie in ‘t Veld and Marietje Schaake to lead the Dutch Democrats 66 list for the elections set an example for digital campaigning for the European Parliament elections. However, the campaigns were aimed at a very specific set of voters and the social media activity can hardly be described as viral. Indeed, fewer than one in four D66 members voted.

The European Greens (@europeangreens) will open voting in their Europe-wide online primary election to select the party’s two leading candidates. It is an interesting innovation, and the hashtag #greenprimary is already being widely used – but generally among Green activists or sympathisers.

The challenge for the European Parliament elections – as an event – to break through beyond these already-engaged audiences is a difficult one. The choice of common candidates may lead to a more ‘European’ debate, but the challenges – of apathy and ignorance, and of different languages, are hard to overcome.

Over the coming months we will continue to look at social media activity and its impact on the elections. We will monitor the hashtags #ep2014 and #pe2014 (for the European Parliament elections), and #eu14 (for more general discussions on the changes in the EU institutions), as well as the terms ‘European elections’ and ‘EU elections’ on Facebook and Twitter in a bid to capture a flavour of the debate.

In addition, we will monitor candidate lists to see whether and how Twitter and Facebook are being used to campaign.

One thing is for certain: the use of social media will be a major part of the European Parliament campaign – whether Europeans at large are listening and are inspired to ‘Act, React, Impact’ (in the words of the Parliament’s own awareness-raising campaign) remains to be seen.

Marek Zaremba-Pike

 

 
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