Twittering not: MEPs fail to embrace Internet craze

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While congressmen on Capitol Hill are already tweeting with Americans across the United States, MEPs are still making scant use of the Internet and fail to fully grasp the potential of digital politics to engage with voters, found a survey published by public affairs consultancy Fleishman-Hillard.

According to the study, 75% of MEPs use their website to reach their electorate, but only half of them (51%) visit blogs once a week or more. An overwhelming two-thirds have never heard of the social networking tool Twitter.

Inspired by Obama

“The vast majority of MEPs are using the Internet and are certainly being inspired by the success that Barack Obama has had, but too many of them still believe that digital tools are less effective than traditional forms of communication, such as television and newspapers,” said James Stevens, senior vice-president for digital services at Fleishman-Hillard in Brussels. 

“I think one also has to recognise that our MEPs have come a long way in the last five years, as have these tools. Five years ago in 2004, Twitter did not exist, Youtube did not exist and Facebook was only used by university students in the US,” Stevens explained.

With less than a month to go before the EU elections, the Party of European Socialists (PES) is beating the other leading political groups in the European Parliament in utilising online technology, the survey has found.

By using Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and Digg, PES members are more likely to be “early adopters” than members of other major parties, said Stevens.

Atlantic divide

Still, MEPs trail behind their American counterparts. Of the 535 members of Congress, 116 are already using Twitter (22%). On this side of the Atlantic, only 27 MEPs use Twitter: just 3.5% of the 785 members of the European Parliament. 

Experts at Fleishman-Hillard are confident that MEPs will catch up soon, but certainly not in time for the upcoming elections, despite a few exceptions. 

“MEPs struggle for column inches at the best of times and yet more and more of our voters go online for their information. I have taken my campaign online and I would encourage my colleagues to do the same,” said Christofer Fjellner, a Swedish conservative MEP. 

Green shoots of digital revolution

According to the survey, a number of MEPs said they occasionally use or plan to use online tools such as social networks, personal blogs, html newsletters, social media releases or online videos. Over half of all MEPs are likely to turn to Web 2.0 in the coming years, the survey found.

“The behaviour of the early adopters is similar to that of Howard Dean in his 2004 campaign to gain the Democratic nomination. His campaign sowed the seeds of  Barack Obama’s subsequent successful online campaign. Similarly, these early adopters represent the future. By mastering these tools now, they stand to gain at the ballot box in the not-too-distant future,” said Bill Black, head of public affairs at Fleishman-Hillard in Washington, D.C.

The Facebook social media network has grown exponentially in Europe, where the site has seen a 314% increase in users to nearly 100 million. 

“We can see for the first time the green shoots of what will be a digital revolution, allowing elected and elector to interact on a more meaningful level. I predict that by the time of the next election, we will see a transformation of these results, with MEPs having woken up to the true benefits of the Internet,” Stevens concluded.

Recent research by Nielsen Net Ratings, an Internet media and market research agency, has found that British users spend most of their Internet time sending instant messages on social networking sites and using their e-mail accounts. 

Another recent study indicates that 60% of Internet users in the EU read or write blogs, listen to podcasts, use Really Simple Syndication (RSS) newsfeeds, or take part in online debates. Those studies show how the Internet has moved from being purely a source of information to become a tool for two-way communication and interaction. 

Ahead of the European elections, the European Parliament has created profiles on online social media (Facebook, MySpace and Flickr) in an attempt to reach younger voters. 

However, the core message of such sites remains the date of the elections and the impact of the European Parliament's decisions on the daily lives of Europeans. But no two-way communication with politicians is really taking place.

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