Britain at the heart of Europe – on Twitter, at least

Vienna GfK studyNever mind the Pollock-style imagery: Axel Maireder‘s data-rich map of the European Twittersphere contains some fascinating insights into online conversations around the European Parliament elections.

Behind the explosion of colours is two months of tweets about the elections analysed by Maireder and his team at the University of Vienna, in collaboration with market research institute GfK. They tracked more than 1.3 million tweets from nearly half a million Twitter users to develop a map of the online political landscape.

Read the study by the University of Vienna and GfK Read more on the GfK website

The map – which features the 11,844 accounts that tweeted at least once about the elections and which were followed by at least 250 other accounts that also tweeted – helpfully visualises the most important and influential users who talked about the 25 May polls. Larger dots indicate a larger number of followers; the closer they are plotted, the greater the similarity in their followings.

But what is the meaning of this map and this data? And how can we use it?

Firstly, we should note that accounts are grouped by language, and not by party affiliation. Language is the most important variable for discussing the elections when choosing who to follow. The result suggests that – despite efforts to move the debate to a more European level – online discussion on the elections still took place in national (or at least linguistic) silos.

Nevertheless, there is a group of users at the centre is the ‘hub’ connecting these language ‘spokes’. 695 accounts marked ‘EU centre’ include the European Commission, commissioners, Brussels media outlets such as European Voice, European Parliament political groups, think tanks, bloggers and a few others.

Normally referred to as the ‘Brussels Bubble’, this group tweets mainly in English but is not speaking to itself – its followers are from across Europe. This group also acts as an interpretation and translation service, drawing information from tweets and articles in their native languages and then sharing it to the rest of Europe in the continent’s de facto lingua franca. Without this ‘hub’ the map would instead resemble a series of islands.

Talking of islands, the British and Irish cluster is – perhaps surprisingly – at the heart of the Europe’s political Twitter network.

The reason for this is fairly simple, however: the British media is international; the stories it tells reach across Europe. Its influence may not have been enough to turn Europe against the idea of Spitzenkandidaten, but it does help draw Europe’s political networks together. Another surprise is perhaps the closeness of Nigel Farage to the EU centre, rather than to the rest of his UK Independence Party. Farage’s Europe-wide following – among friends and enemies alike – explains this, giving him an ironically integrating role in European political conversations.

So what can we learn from this?

For one thing, if you want to ensure your political messages reach the largest number of influential Twitter accounts across Europe, use English. Also, consider Spanish as a second language, due to the large number of followers (although it is less connected that the French-, German- or Italian-language networks).

Second, do not be concerned if you are part of the ‘Brussels bubble’ – far from being insular, you are at the hub of a Europe-wide network and stand a good chance of getting your message to ripple around the rest of Europe.

Third, politicians who wish to have a Europe-wide profile should use such maps to understand how they are connected with other Europeans discussing politics and where their weaknesses are. They should also go further and track how messages move across this network and identify those accounts that help their messages connect with hard-to-reach groups. Sometimes these multipliers are obvious; often there are surprises.

Fourth, EU public affairs professionals should examine the connections as part of their social media strategies. We will be taking a look at these in more detail in the coming weeks, but if you wish to know more about how Burson-Marsteller can help you build you public affairs and social media strategy for the next European Parliament, get in touch.

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Marek Zaremba-Pike