EU politicians 'overwhelmed' by power shift to social media
By Honor Mahony
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).
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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He added that the traditional binary construct of left/right ideology has been replaced by open versus closed information and political systems.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.
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.