Opinion

Bringing the EU's political debate to social media

07.01.14 @ 08:00

  1. By Elizabeth Linder

BRUSSELS - Three years ago, I moved from Silicon Valley to Europe. Since then I’ve met with countless politicians and civil society leaders in many nations – from Hungary to Germany, Jordan to Morocco – to learn about how they connect with their electorate or to help them to understand how they can be part of the political debate online.

  • Social media - Something MEPs should learn to navigate ahead of the May EU elections (Photo: European Parliament)

Now, as the European elections draw near, it is time to reflect on these conversations.

The year 2014 will be a decisive one for European politics. Yet despite the EU’s significant impact on people’s lives, voter turnout in the European elections is foreseen to be at its lowest level yet – some estimate below 40 percent.

In recent years the traditional barriers between voters and politicians evolve rapidly, thanks to social media.

But there is a need to bridge the gap between citizens actively seeking to connect to politicians online, and politicians who do not yet fully understand how to connect and interact with these voices.

Many politicians in Europe are aware of this reality but remain unclear about what to do online.

First, and perhaps the most important point, is that political impact online comes not from how fancy your technology is or how big a staff you have.

It comes from being authentic. Political representatives should talk to people as they would speak in person. Engage. Interact. Answer questions. Ask questions. Build trust.

In today’s connected world, politicians have unprecedented access to engage voters in direct, candid and open dialogue. Indeed, more than one in three eligible European voters is on Facebook, and millions of others are reachable online.

Europe’s citizens are ready to connect and willing to participate in political discussion online. What is more, we are no longer relying on speculation to understand these social patterns. Research from the European Union Institute for Security Studies shows that in the next few decades people will increasingly expect to participate in political decision-making.

A Pew Research Centre study shows that someone who uses Facebook multiple times per day was an additional two and a half times more likely to attend a political rally or meeting, 57 percent more likely to persuade someone about their vote, and 43 percent more likely to have said they would vote.

According to evidence from the New Zealand 2011 General Election, every 1,000 fan increase on a political candidate’s Facebook page yielded a 1.4 percentage point increase in the share of vote.

For politicians, these are studies worth understanding.

In an era when people share and debate their political views online, and especially in the European Union where democratic values underpin political decision-making, political leaders must join conversations and take a step closer to citizens.

Of course, there is no comprehensive answer on how to approach social media. But politicians who follow the best practice steps below tend to have greater success:

Start Early - Studies show that the earlier you connect with people, the faster you build trust. Early investment in social media pays off in closely fought polls.

Tailor your content to your own style - People connect to people and although an MEP officially represents a constituency, you have to have your own persona. Use the technology in a way that reflects you.

Brush up on your page insights - Understand which of your constituents are most engaged with your content, at what times of day, and what interests them most.

Be useful - Ask people what they are most interested in hearing about. Consider what they think is actually useful information to receive for an MEP.

Encourage people to be content creators - If people create content in your online space, their own contacts will know about it and may pick up on your messages at the same time. So ask people for questions and respond; generate hashtags; get people to document how an issue affects them, for example through photos. Create and co-create compelling content that shares a story and your message.

Some leading European politicians are doing it right.

European Parliament: responds to zeitgeist with content directly relevant to people’s lives, posting real-time photos and hosting chats with MEPs. Reached more than 1 million fans on its Facebook page alone.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany: tags other politicians and posts featured videos from the inside at political rallies and events; it’s a reflection of her personal style and this has resulted in greater engagement between Merkel, her “fans” and those politicians tagged.

Bronislaw Komorowski, President of Poland: posts his own version of the "selfie" taken with fans. Includes short status updates with photos to let fans know what work he has been doing and what meetings he has intended. Informative, yet engaging.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia: posts photo albums from his visits around the world, which serves as a great way of engaging fans in the President's work.

How should success be defined? Advice garnered from political leaders and elected officials across Europe shows we should focus less on the numbers of “likes” or “followers” and more on the quality of the engagement.

If you have uncovered an issue you wouldn’t have thought of on your own, or if you’re connected to more people online than you could possibly fit in your office in a day of personal briefings, you are doing it right.

The writer is Facebook’s Politics & Government Specialist for the Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) region.