Friday

24th Mar 2017

Focus

EU politicians 'overwhelmed' by power shift to social media

  • One third of the EU's eligible voters are on Facebook (Photo: Spencer E Holtaway)

Power is moving to the internet and only politicians and political parties that adapt to this new reality will survive in the future is the stark message sent to MEPs on the eve of EU elections.

"Power is shifting from hierarchies to citizens and networks of citizens," Alec Ross, a US social media expert, told an audience in the European Parliament on Wednesday (2 April).

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

With membership of political parties on the decrease coupled with the expected low turnout for the May EU vote, Ross, who worked for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, said both EU institutions and MEPs need to attract voters online.

Figures show that young voters - voting for the first or second time in their lives - in Western Europe spend an average of five hours a day online. In central and eastern Europe the average is six hours.

"If you [MEPs and political parties] do not want to see your support go increasingly down, then what you need to do is be more and more aggressive about meeting new voters where they are, which is online," said Ross.

EU leaders ‘overwhelmed’

He added that the traditional binary construct of left/right ideology has been replaced by open versus closed information and political systems.

However EU leaders often feel "overwhelmed" by this new power shift as they can no longer control the message, which in yesteryear was usually sent to voters twice a day through their newspaper and the daily TV news in the evening.

Now the message risks getting distorted, mocked or trashed by those who receive it.

But it is not just a case of hastening online to open a twitter or facebook account and then hoping something good will come of it.

MEPs - 400 of the 766 are currently on twitter - should be active, honest and write their twitter updates themselves, said Matthias Luefkens, in charge of digital issues at PR firm Burson Marsteller.

They also need a social media team to follow up on questions or issues raised by voters on twitter or facebook.

For example, UK leader David Cameron was lampooned when his Twitter account featured a photo of him discussing policy on the phone with US President Barack Obama. His social media team deflated the ridicule by reacting with humour.

Luefkins was critical of Martin Schulz's move to rename his Europe Parliament President twitter account - with its over 80,000 followers - as his account for running for the EU commission presidency.

He noted that Swedish Foreign minister Carl Bildt, a prolific tweeter, was recently able to answer over 60 questions in half an hour, many more than the average press conference.

He praised Finnish Europe minister Alex Stubb - who regularly posts 'selfies' of himself with voters - as really knowing "how to engage his audience".

Ross, for his part, said that it is really easy to create "insurgencies" online. He noted that the populist Tea Party in the US has virtually taken over the Republican Party in part because of its "ability to organise online".

"The Tea Party is now mainstream Republicanism but as recently as ten years ago, it would have been viewed as right-wing extremism".

And this says Ross shows the “downside” of social media.

"Social media tends to punish moderation and compromise. [It] tends to reward voices at the extreme."

In Europe, an equivalent in terms of "insurgency" would be the Italian populist Beppe Grillo's Five Star Party, which is currently polling on about 25 percent.

Here Ross' criticism overlapped with Andrew Keen, a well-known critic of the effects of the internet, who said there was little of substance being discussed online. Rather, said Keen, social media is for "narcissists" of which those who appeared the most "authentic" were the most influential.

Building networks

Joe Trippi, a US political strategist, said that the most important step for politicians was to build up networks.

Voters do not trust politicians, he said, but they trust their peers, colleagues and family and will accept political, social and cultural recommendations from this group.

To this comes the fact that social platforms are different. Twitter is used more by political elites; but an increasing "non-elite" is on Facebook, where one third of the EU's eligible voters are present.

Trippi said that Obama was helped to a second term in office because of the huge social media network his campaign team had built up during in five years previously. The Republicans, who dismissed the role of in the internet in 2008, are still catching up.

Heather Smith from Let's Rock the Vote, a US organisation that tries to get people aware and interested in going to the polls, spoke of the importance of demystifying the voting process.

But she was rather scathing of the European Parliament's attempts to explain the vote so far. "I thought it was bad in the US," she said of the assembly's website.

MEPs have stopped blogging, are afraid of Twitter, love Facebook

However real or exaggerated reports of 'Twitter revolutions' and 'Facebook activism' in Tunisia, Moldova, Iran and the UK are, members of the European Parliament appear on the whole to be afraid of the micro-blogging utility yet they seem to be in love with the social networking service.

Populist MEPs lead Twitter ranking

European citizens are due to elect a new parliament in less than two weeks. With two-thirds of MEPs on Twitter, part of the election is being fought on social media.

Online anti-EU networks fragmented and nation-based

Anti-EU online networks are as fragmented and nationally-based as in the real world and they tend to operate in isolation, but the big exception is Ukip which has built up a large online network in the UK.

EUobserved

When two worlds collide

Two worlds collided at the end of last week. The shrill, uncompromising one of British politics and the technocratic, dry, world of the European Commission.

EUobserved

Schadenfreude and fire-walking in the EP

There was outright glee in the EP on Thursday. It was time to dust off everyone’s favourite German word for pleasure in the misfortune of others.

EU parliament approves Juncker commission

MEPs have approved Juncker's new EU commission, with a slightly smaller majority than in 2010, and following a number of concessions on portfolios.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  2. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  3. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  4. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  5. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  6. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  7. Malta EU 2017Council Adopts New Rules to Improve Safety of Medical Devices
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy
  9. Party of European SocialistsWe Must Renew Europe for All Europeans
  10. MEP Tomáš ZdechovskýThe European Commission Has Failed in Its Fight Against Food Waste
  11. ILGA-EuropeEP Recognises Discrimination Faced by Trans & Intersex People
  12. Nordic Council of Ministers25 Nordic Bioeconomy Cases for Sustainable Change

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AllianceSupporting Artur Mas: Democracy and Freedom Cannot Be Convicted
  2. UNICEFSyria Conflict 6 Years On: Children's Suffering at Its Worst
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsDomestic Violence in Tajikistan: Time to Right the Wrongs
  4. European Trust SummitCorporate Strategy and Public Affairs in a Low-Trust World - Conference 31 May
  5. Malta EU 2017Agreement Reached to Involve Consumers in Financial Services Policymaking
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cities Gather Against Violent Extremism & Introduce Nordic Safe Cities
  7. World VisionFears and Dreams of Syria's Children and Their Peers Around the World
  8. Malta EU 2017Maltese Presidency and EP Agree on Visa Liberalisation for Ukraine
  9. Mission of China to the EUEU Window Chinese Government Academic Scholarship 2017/18 - Apply Now
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Lead the Way on Women's Economic Empowerment
  11. Center for Data InnovationBuilding Smart Cities for Tomorrow's Data Economy – 28 March - Brussels