Will the EU get a social media election?

In June 2009 Twitter had around 50 million users. Today, it has around a quarter of a billion. Facebook use has grown from around 200 million users at the time of the last European Parliament elections to more than one billion today. But does this growth – and the development of new tools, such as Instagram and Vine, mean that the EU will get a social media election in 2014?

This was the subject of a lively event organised by the European Parliament office in the UK last week. It was undoubtedly one of the most passionate debates I have attended in a while, due both to the topic and the diverse and well-balanced panel of speakers (see panel below).

There is little doubt that social media plays a key role in politics today, but it is debatable how much it will drive interest in next year’s elections.

Richard Howitt MEP and Karen Melchior both mentioned how social media channels have allowed them to stay connected to their electorates.

They admitted that they are not able to respond to everyone who contacts them, but social media does allow more interaction and more understanding for MEPs and candidates of what matters to their constituents.

Karen Melchior even went so far as to mention that she did not believe she would be a candidate today were it not for her active and continuous engagement via social media.

The panellists

Richard Howitt – Labour (S&D) MEP (@richardhowitt)
Karen Melchior – Social Liberal Party (ALDE) candidate (@karmel80)
Thibault Lesenecal – Head of Web Communications Unit, European Parliament (@tayebot)
Ben Fowkes – Delib (@ben_fowkes)
Andy Williamson – digital political engagement expert (@andy_williamson)
Jimmy Leach – Chair and digital communications and engagement expert (@JimmyTLeach)

This ‘continuous engagement’ was identified as a key factor for success: candidates, MEPs and institutions need to communicate all the time, and not just before and after elections.

What really matters is what is said and done between these elections. Democracy is not just about elections, but about how people are represented. We need to allow citizens to be more involved and connected to politicians and institutions to underpin the legitimacy of our representatives.

Two key points stood out for me.

Firstly, we should not overlook the important voice that social media gives to (almost) all European citizens – but we should remember that it is not always an informed voice.

As the discussion continued it became very obvious that political illiteracy is a crucial problem – even more so when it comes to European politics. Andy Williamson rightly pointed out that there was a lack of political knowledge and only a small minority of students leave school or university with a strong belief that they have the power to change the current political landscape.

The current education system has failed to keep up with changing times. Some people (like me) were lucky enough to get a political education both at university and at home. Over the years, I have used social media channels such as Twitter to educate as well as be educated on political issues, among other topics – but many people still lack the awareness, understanding or interest to exercise their democratic rights effectively.

Secondly, social media can help to bridge this gap in awareness, understanding and interest, but we need to reach beyond those who already share our views. A greater effort needs to be made to reach a wider audience by making politics – and especially European politics, which is often alien and technocratic – relevant to people’s lives.

As one Twitter contributor put it, “people simply don’t understand EU politics until it seems relevant to them”.  The best way to make the EU seem relevant to someone is by placing an issue in an individual context and by making it relevant to that person’s interests.

On my way back to the office, I reflected on a point Andy Williamson had mentioned: “we engage because we believe in topics and issues but we vote because it is a duty”.

Those are clearly two questions that the European Parliament, MEPs and candidates will need to focus on in the coming months: how can we truly engage European citizens? And how can we convince the 380 million eligible voters that their vote really does count?

Turning awareness into interest and interest into votes will be crucial. Social media might not be the only answer in bridging the gap between awareness and interest, but it is certainly a key part of the solution.

Toni Cowan-Brown – Digital Strategist, Burson-Marsteller EMEA HQ (@thefashioncloud)

You can check out the video and Storify of the event on the European Parliament in the UK’s website.