Communication and conviction : social networks as political tools
If the aim of the seminar was to exchange opinions and experiences rather than to focus on numbers and data, the content was without a doubt rich and informative. Can the media and social networks renew the link between Brussels (real or imaginary) and regional issues, as citizens desert the European election booths in their droves ? The presence of numerous representatives of private (telecommunications, lobby groups) as well as European institutions (Commission, Parliament) shows that the Web 2.0 development is already considered by leading European players to be of prime importance. But the opinion is unanimous : huge efforts are still needed for education purposes. The target is twofold : on the one hand, to convince the European world, all too often stuck in its bubble, to open up and on the other, to help social network and media users to understand (or to love) Europe. For Antonia Mochan, who runs the blog of the European Commission Representation in London, “European institutions must be on social networks ! The question is no longer « Should we ?” but »How to be on social networks ?”
- B. Obama’s home page on Facebook
A huge European campaign, like that of Obama, broadcast on all social networks and media in Europe. Is it conceivable in the near future ?
In the UK, Eurosceptic ideas spread quickly on sites, blogs and social networks. It is absolutely necessary to be there in order to respond, point by point. Marie-Christine Vergiat, a French MEP of the European United Left, believes that presence on social networks gives the opportunity to communicate and reach a population of activists that is has a lot of pre-conceived ideas about Europe. A need to convince and to communicate is all the more important in a large constituency such as that of Ms. Vergiat (from the Alps to Corsica, via the Côte d’Azur).
So far, even with the use of social networks, forming a relationship with citizens is not always easy : the German liberal Alexander Alvaro admits to have never changed his opinion after a discussion on Twitter or Facebook. His Dutch colleague Marietje Schaake shares her views on social networking : it is important to be a part of the experience, part of what is happening, without believing it is trivial. For her, politicians’ contact with citizens through social networks is unique as it combines speed and mass effect. It can even anticipate the media revival of some events, as shown by the Tunisian revolution. But it must be understood as an instrument : it cannot replace votes or political opinion. According to her, it would seem dangerous to view social media as an instrument of direct democracy.
If the 2009 European elections were to a small extent followed on the social networks and media, it will not be the same for the 2014 elections. In fact, for the two Liberal MEPs, media and social networks will be at the heart of the 2014 campaign. However, it is still a long way away from campaigning in the Barack Obama or Nicolas Sarkozy style, expresses an expert in the field of social networks and political strategies of European politicians.
Talking to the Brussels bubble...and escaping it
Although MEPs have announced that talking with citizens is “fundamental” (although many of them are their own supporters), the question being directed more and more often at European institutions, and not only at their members is this : how to reach and engage citizens and voters ? For Stephen Clark, who is in charge of Communication for the European Parliament, the challenge is both to talk to the Brussels bubble (bloggers, European activists, lobbyists, who know perfectly how Europe works and who the leading players are) and to get outside it. It is a double objective that calls for a double message.
- Jerzy Buzek and the magic of twitter
Social networks to the rescue ? A question linked to multilingualism and the ever-difficult comprehension of EU decision-making
Facebook users and Twitter followers are not all representative of one sole emerging public opinion. This reality check was welcome at the conference, which was attended by many that are familiar with European institutions, lobbyists and bloggers. The European Parliament has 110,000 fans on Facebook and 14,000 followers on Twitter. Together, all MEPs have a total of 900,000 followers. What should be done with this social capital ? For Gianni Pitella, the Italian socialist Vice President of the European Parliament, network access can stimulate debate at national and European levels : “on Facebook, we reach one million people.” His initiative EuropaBarCamp follows this direction : to signal to MEPs the local ideas that focus on different issues (innovation, environment, economy) and that go beyond political divisions.