Many European politicians have mapped out social media strategies to win votes in the upcoming European election. But critics argue that politicians should not assume that they will be able reach the average citizen, warning that social media tends to favour populist politicians.
When Jean-Claude Juncker paid a visit to Utrecht last week, his social media team was busy trying to attract attention. The centre-right candidate for the European Commission presidency tweeted his statements while the European People’s Party (EPP) and its Dutch faction posted pictures of him and his supporters on Twitter. This was just one example of how European politicians are increasingly tweeting, posting and sharing content on Facebook, in order to win voter attention for the upcoming EU elections, on 22-25 May.
A European Parliament Twitter list shows that over 400 MEPs now have an account on the micro-blogging network. The EU institution also curates a ‘hub’ that shows tweets by all of its representatives on the social network. In December, the European Parliament also boasted it had reached one million followers on their Facebook page. As the last plenary session in Strasbourg is held this week, many of them now shift into election mode.
Earlier this month, EU politics insiders were happy to hear the thoughts of Alec Ross, who managed the online campaign of US president, Barack Obama in 2008. Ross explained how the president’s staff took to the online stage as part of a strategy to deliver a victory for Obama.
“Politicians who adapt, will get elected,” Obama’s former tech whiz kid said, even if many politicians are still adapting to these online engagement tools. “They are used to having to engage elites. Now they have to engage with large audiences,” Ross said.
“To get elected,” Ross explained, “you need to reach non-elites and those are aggregated on Facebook. Twitter is good to create conversations, but Facebook is more important in initiatives like ‘get out to vote’.”
But who is ‘liking’ the online efforts?
Despite all efforts, a survey on media use in Europe shows that 75% of Europeans prefer television as a source of political news related to EU affairs. Written press comes second, with 40% of respondents mentioning it as one of their two main sources. The Internet comes last, with only 29% putting it amongst their two main sources for EU political news. Two out of ten also indicate that they “never” use the internet.
Matthias Lüfkens, chair of the Middle East and Africa Digital Practice division of public affairs agency Burson-Marsteller, told EURACTIV: “The best way to win an election in a country is still to go on TV. It is not social media itself that will bring undecided voters.”
“But politicians should still consider setting up shop,” he adds, “even if I’m not sure that these activities will have any effect on the elections.”
A key area of the upcoming May ballot is voter turnout, which dropped to an all-time low of 43% at the last European elections in 2009. Will social media help reverse the trend?
According to the internet entrepreneur and social media critic Andrew Keen, politicians or institutions are mainly addressing their core base – and not the average citizen – on social media. “We are exposed to what we already endorse, what Eli Pariser called the ‘filter bubble’,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.
This ‘filter bubble’ refers to social media websites’ built-in algorithms, which display only selective content corresponding to a user’s own tastes and preferences. It also means that contradictory opinions are often lacking in people’s Facebook feeds or Twitter lists.
“You’re preaching to the converted, those that already support you,” Lüfkens said. “The challenge for politicians is to go beyond the followers and reach their friends.”
‘Eurosceptics do better on Twitter’
Some politicians have mastered the art of social media. A monitoring tool by TNS shows that, in the past month, that Matteo Renzo, François Hollande or David Cameron have succeeded in getting the most attention online.
Martin Schulz, who is running as the socialist candidate to become the next EU Commission president, is the most active EU politician on social media.
But critics wonder whether the social media tool encourages a constructive public debate. Complexity and nuance may rarely fit into 140 characters – the maximum length of a tweet – or in a Facebook post.
According to Keen, “Beppe Grillo epitomises the kind of politician who can win in a social media environment: the kind that is reinvented as a brand and markets a simple idea, like Islamophobia, leaving the EU, or burning the establishment.”
“Anything beyond that is very hard to represent in social media,” Keen thinks.
“The downside [of social media], particularly to Europe, is that social media tends to punish compromise and moderation,” Alec Ross admitted. “It rewards tensions towards the extreme.”
Polls from the past few months have shown that anti-EU parties are likely to gain ground in the upcoming elections, potentially up to 25% of the next European Parliament.