Almost 400 of the 766 members of parliament have a Twitter account and the Parliament itself has embraced 140-character communications in a big way.
Over the past five years the European Parliament has set up more than 80 official Twitter accounts, tweeting in 23 languages. The European Parliament has grabbed the opportunity social media offers to engage EU citizens directly.
This matters for its legitimacy, but is the Parliament making an impact?
By Marek Zaremba-Pike (@marekzp) and Matthias Lüfkens - EMEA Digital Practice Leader, Burson-Marsteller (@luefkens)
Social media outreach for institutions that officially are not meant to have an opinion is not easy, but the European Parliament is one of the most active international institutions on social media.
With turnout for European elections relatively low – just like knowledge of the institution – the incentives for the Parliament are clear.
So while on the one hand the Parliament sees itself as fulfilling a duty to communicate to citizens about the activities of their elected representatives, on the other it seeks to improve its perceived legitimacy amongst EU citizens and respond to the intense scrutiny and criticism it receives.
Social media allows the European Parliament to do this without depending on others – including mainstream media that reports little on the activities of MEPs – to get its message across. It is on this basis that the Parliament’s activities should be judged, and the European elections provide a perfect test.
The Parliament took its first steps on social media in the run up to the last European elections and the management of the accounts has grown into a sophisticated operation involving dozens of people. Not only do those managing these accounts have to keep on top of the flow of information coming out of the Parliament, they also create content such as photos, videos and infographics.
In addition, using a tool called Engagor, the teams monitor and manage the engagement with the accounts. While those running the institution’s Twitter accounts are careful about retweeting or replying to messages, on Facebook there are fewer reservations. Part of the success of the Parliament’s Facebook group - which has more than one million followers – can be attributed to a willingness to allow critical comments and to respond where appropriate.
This is not a criticism of its Twitter engagement. The Parliament was one of the early adopters of Twitter and has been quite successful at bringing together different voices. These accounts are not merely broadcasting one single message in all languages, but each account has created its own editorial line and tone, targeted to their specific audience.
Despite the moderators rarely replying or retweeting messages, they do use ‘@’ mentions, do livetweeting of key events, and post videos and photos in the account timelines. The focus is keeping followers fully informed of the latest developments in the Parliament. While the accounts do not have millions of followers, its messages are valued by those following the EU policymaking process.
The European Parliament’s social media activities should not be understood simply by looking at its own channels. The Parliament has worked hard to encourage MEPs’ own social media activities and bring those activities to a wider audience – partly through @ mentions on Twitter, but also via the EP Newshub (which feeds into the country-specific pages on this website – see photo above).
The EP Newshub brings together all the social media activities of parliamentarians in a single place. For those wishing to follow the activities of legislators this is an invaluable aid.
Numerous other initiatives have given citizens the possibility to understand the Parliament as well as ask questions and ‘chat’ with MEPs. In line with its neutral tole, the Parliament shares the content of a wide range of MEPs and highlights different views (an example – at the time of writing, the face and voice greeting visitors to the Parliament’s YouTube channel is the leader of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group, Nigel Farage).
In terms of the elections, one of the Parliament’s biggest successes has been its Act React Impact campaign video, which has been watched more than seven million times. The European Parliament has also set-up an Instagram account and a Vine account, broadcasting interesting six-second videos such as the one below, which encourages citizens to vote in May.
All this matters. The European Parliament now has several channels giving it direct access to millions of Europeans and indirect access to millions more. As with any Parliament, voter turnout – not clicks and views – is the key indicator of its legitimacy.
We’ve discussed elsewhere how the Parliament has acted as a catalyst for Twitter discussions on the elections, which the political groups in particular have built upon. Momentum is building, and the Parliament’s online activities will have helped. How much, we will only know at the end of May.
Since April 2009 it has used Twitter as a key channel for communicating with the general public, giving all 80 parliamentary accounts (in 23 languages) a common and consistent visual branding and gaining official verification from Twitter for a large majority of the accounts.
The main accounts
The English-language account is the most followed institutional European Parliament account, with around 37,000 followers, ahead of the Italian-, Spanish-, French- and German-language accounts. The Twitter strategy of the English-, Spanish-, Italian- and French-language accounts seem to to be most effective, with more than three quarters of tweets retweeted, on average more than five times each.
Interestingly, the Spanish-language account is the second most prolific account after the central @Europarl account, with an average of more than 11 tweets per day and an abundant use of hashtags (more than 2.5 hashtags per tweet). The @Europarl account – which essentially retweets messages from other English-language European Parliament accounts – is the most prolific account, with more than 15 tweets per day.
The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz (left), was a Twitter pioneer among senior EU-level politicians. He set up his Twitter account in late 2008 and has been very successful in growing his following, particularly during his time as President. With around 75,000 followers, he has recently overtaken his immediate predecessor, former Polish prime minister Jerzy Buzek in terms of followers.
However, Schulz is particularly effective in spreading his message: 73% of his tweets are retweeted, on average more than 23 times each.
With Schulz now using his account as a campaign platform in his bid to be President of the European Commission, the European Parliament now has an institutional Twitter account for its President – @EP_President.
A more recent addition to the Parliament’s Twitter roster are the parliamentary committees, which were added in late 2012 and early 2013.
Unsurprisingly, given its wide legislative powers, the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) has the most followers (around 3,600), ahead of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) and the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) with around 2,500 and 2,300 followers respectively. All three committees are also among the most active, tweeting on average almost twice per day.
The information offices
Over the past five years 28 of the European Parliament’s information offices – in EU member states and in the United States – have established their own Twitter presence.
The statistics account of the European Parliament office in the United Kingdom - which tweets interesting statistical data on the European Union and the UK – is the most successful information office account, with their tweets retweeted on average more than five times each.
The political groups and their leaders
With the European Parliament elections approaching fast, competition between the political groups online is fierce, as they try to communicate to voters their activities and their achievements from the past five years.
The centre-right EPP Group leads the way on Twitter, as in the Parliament. It has around 24,000 followers. The Socialists and Democrats Group have 19,000 followers, with the Liberal ALDE Group on around 10,700 followers.
However, it is the leader of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group - itself not on Twitter – who is the most-followed group leader. Nigel Farage has 106,000 followers, far ahead of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Co-President of the Greens / European Free Alliance Group and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE Group and the Liberal candidate for the Commission presidency. These two leaders have around 69,000 and 17,000 followers respectively.
The press team
Perhaps unsurprisingly, European Parliament spokesperson Jaume Duch is the most conversational of all European Parliament accounts, with 38% of his tweets being @replies to other Twitter users. Duch is also prolific: he has tweeted nearly 5,500 times, followed by deputy spokesperson Marjory van den Broeke and the press team account, each with more than 3,500 tweets.
Twitter data for this study was gathered using Twitonomy.com.