Facebook specialist: Politicians still figuring out social media

Elizabeth Linder [Policy Exchange/Flickr]

Elizabeth Linder [Policy Exchange/Flickr]

People who own smartphones check their phones 150 times a day, Elisabeth Linder told EURACTIV in an interview, adding that this is a huge opportunity for politicians to reach out to people and get them engaged in politics.

Elizabeth Linder is Facebook’s Politics & Government Specialist for Europe, Middle East and Africa. She spoke to EURACTIV’s James Crisp.

What impact will social media have on the EU elections?

We’re seeing a lot of activity on social media right now, both from the side of politicians who are engaging with citizens and on the side of the political parties who are actively using their Facebook page to host content and show what politicians are doing. And also on the part of organisations, who are trying to make citizens understand how their issues relate to citizens across Europe.

So there is a lot going on and one in three eligible voters are on Facebook. I really hope that politicians take full advantage in the next month to reach out with people to connect and help them understand how EU politics is related to their daily lives.

Do you think this interaction will have a positive effect on turnout?

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.

Those people are checking their mobile phones all the time, looking at news feeds and interacting to high degree on Facebook. 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.

Facebook is a US company. How do European politicians measure up to their counterparts in America when it comes to the use of social media?

It is very individual. I work with a variety of politicians and candidates. Some are doing this extremely well. They’re taking a careful look at their comments, they are engaging with citizens, they are encouraging people to take photos with a specific hashtag and share them.

Others are still figuring this out and are trying to understand why Facebook has an impact in politics. One number that came out of the US was a research figure showing that people are 57% more likely to persuade someone on their vote [for them] if they are connected on Facebook or other services.

That figure is very well understood in the States, whereas here in Europe we are working very hard that politicians really realise how important this is.

Is there an example of a recent election where Facebook played a role in the outcome?

In the Indian elections, the world’s largest democracy, it has been amazing to see the level of activity. We saw a huge campaign around people taking Instagram selfies after their vote.

We’ve seen amazing election activity on Facebook happen in Germany, in Israel, in Australia and in New Zealand. In New Zealand there was a study that showed that for every 1,000 fans, there is a correlation of 1.4% higher percentage share of the vote. This really is a global conversation.

On a demographic basis, does Facebook have a reach that goes to all parts of the society?

Our studies show that in a lot of countries, Facebook is actually the first port to the internet in the grandparent-age demographic. They get on Facebook to connect with their grandchildren.

Each country has its own picture, but in some countries you’ll see 50% to 60% of the total population is connected to Facebook, which shows an extremely wide demographic.

Privacy has taken centre stage of the European public debate after this summer’s revelations on US spying. What kind of safeguards does Facebook have in place to guarantee users’ privacy?

The most important thing we can do is educate people to make sure that people are aware of how they are sharing their photos and that they are sharing them with the audience that they are most comfortable with.

The challenge for us, and the most important thing we can do, is that people are aware of the range of options they have in Facebook’s privacy setting and the way they are sharing is in tune with their privacy concerns.

Can a Facebook campaign change a politician’s mind?

I like to think so. What is so exciting is that you have those updates directly from politicians, but also and perhaps even more important, you have the comments underneath. These give the politician a pulse of what people are thinking of them.

I’ve been in meetings where politicians tell me they’ve changed their minds on certain things based on the comments they’ve seen. Or that they become aware of an issue they didn’t realise so many people care about because of reading the comments on their page.

I would certainly like to see that this is where the realm of politics and Facebook is going; towards that two-way dialogue between people who are making the decisions and people who are affected by them.

Are these the most connected European elections so far?

Based on the sheer number of European citizens that are connected to a single platform, I would say they are. Hopefully, in five years there will be even greater possibilities.

According to what you see online, who will win these elections?

We don’t have an insight into who is going to win. But we’re seeing quite a bit of activity and we’ll look into how this activity has an impact on encouraging and inspiring people to go out and vote. Let’s see where all of this goes and we’ll answer the question in a few months’ time.

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