Even though the first presidential debate in Maastricht on Monday (28 April) did not produce a clear winner, Twitter has shown it can play a prominent role in the EU election campaign.
In total, some 45,000 tweets and exchanges were sent during the debate. Viewers tuned in to the conversation by following the hashtag #EUdebate2014, dedicated to the event.
While the question on who won the debate was left undecided, all parties spoke highly of the attention the debate got online. “I have looked at the social media attention and it seems that people looked and listened,” the candidate for the socialists, Martin Schulz, said in the wake of the debate.
“We were trending hashtag in several countries across Europe,” Giuseppe Porcaro of the European Youth Forum. “That was quite impressive.”
In a statement, organisers confirmed that the hashtag was "top trending" in six European countries: Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Austria, Italy and France. Viewers also tuned in via the live-stream, which attracted 70,000 live session starts during the debate, according to euronews' figures.
Twitter in southern Europe
The debate, organised by the Maastricht University, in partnership with Euronews and the European Youth Forum, was presented as one that would scrutinize the candidates’ views on youth issues.
Record-low youth employment figures, and how to create quality jobs for the young, were amongst the first questions posed to the four debaters.
The map of Europe shows that many of the social media attention for the debate came from southern Europe, in countries that are also suffering the most from youth unemployment like Greece, Spain or Italy.
Candidates across Europe
A search on the times that Spitzenkandidaten were mentioned in tweets shows that candidates are most present in the online spheres close to home.
Guy Verhofstadt’s name pops up most often in the Benelux and France. Jean-Claude Juncker was most often mentioned in France, Luxembourg and Germany, which roughly matches Ska Keller’s presence online.
Martin Schulz not only showed a strong presence in the tweets coming from Germany; he was also often quoted and mentioned by Italian and Spanish followers.
When looking at the member state maps themselves, EurActiv saw that most most tweets came from capitals. Dublin, Athens, London or Rome: all showed a stronger interest of people on Twitter than the rest of the country.
Social media central to campaigns
A lot of pan-European parties are, for the first time, running a campaign that places a lot of emphasis on social media.
The European People’s Party (EPP) runs a digital ‘war room’ at their headquarters in Brussels, where twenty-somethings try and trigger the attention of voters online. The Greens in the fall of 2013 boasted that they organised the first online primary in Europe. Socialists, liberals: all put significant resources into online campaigning.
Alec Ross, who ran US president Barack Obama’s social media campaign in 2008, told Brussels’ political forces earlier that “politicians who adapt, will get elected.”
But a huge challenge for EU politicians is to reach the citizens who lack information on the EU.
A survey on media use in Europe shows that 75% of Europeans prefer television as a source of news on EU affairs. Written press is the second preferred source: 40% of respondents pinpoint it as one of their two main sources. Two out of ten Europeans state “never” to access the internet.
The biggest stake of these elections are arguably the voter turnout. The percentage of Europeans participating in the EU elections has dropped consistently over the past decades and was at an embarrassing 43% in 2009. Now, social media is hoped to help boost this number.
Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s Politics & Government specialist for Europe, told EurActiv that “the turnout has been low in recent years. But the last time Europe had elections, in 2009, Facebook had one hundred million active users. Today, we have 1.2 billion active users.”
“People who own smartphones check their phones 150 times a day, our data shows. To me, that is a huge opportunity for people to get engaged in politics. And I try and encourage and inspire politicians to reach out to those people.”
A Gallup poll released on Tuesday (29 April) shows that a large majority of US mobile users don't come across political communication on their mobile device. "Mobile communication for connecting voters and potential voters to politics has yet to be fully realised," the American polling organisation argued.
‘Best way is still TV’
The series of Presidential Debates are all organised in co-partnership with broadcast media. Next week, the State of the Union debate is shown on RaiNews24; on 15 May, up to 20 national cross-border TV stations will broadcast the TellEUROPE debate.
This is key to reach the average citizen, observers of the EU election campaigns have argued. “Europarl tweeting in languages is a great public service, but if you want to win an election in a country, the best way is still to go on TV,” Matthias Lüfkens of Burson-Marsteller told EurActiv.
The US-based online entrepreneur Andrew Keen, have spoken out more critically on the emphasis EU institutions and parties are putting on social media.
In Monday’s debate, the question arises who those active Twitter users were, and how much of the 45,000 tweets lead back to the parties’ social media teams, candidate accounts and party members.