European elections will not be social media elections

Europe House in London

Falling turnouts at European elections give reasons for concern

Policy makers in Brussels are searching for ways to promote next year’s European elections, with social media playing an essential role, but Europe is not ready for its first social media elections, experts say.

Next year’s European Parliament election (22-25 May) will clearly be different to previous elections in the EU. On the one hand, the electoral system has changed: The European parties nominate top candidates who will run for European Commission President, aiming to integrate European citizens as political actors (one of the goals of the Lisbon Treaty).

Without doubt there a better integration of the public is needed, with the turnouts at European elections dropping steadily from 62 per cent in 1979 to 43 per cent in 2009.

On the other hand, Europeans have fundamentally changed their online behaviour since going to the polls in 2009. Although the European Parliament (EP) started to be active on social media in 2008, it now uses those information channels as well as its website in a more sophisticated way.

Digital media elections?

“Will the EU therefore get a social media election in 2014?” was the starting point for a panel discussion at the Europe in House in London.

The European Parliament put a strong focus on social media in its campaign to “create engagement between the public and the MEPs”, Thibault Lesenecal, Head of the EP’s Web Communications, said, as “being on social media is nothing special in 2014”.

Richard Howitt, Labour MEP for Essex, argued that Twitter has become an important tool to tackle myths about the European Union, with more than half of the MEPs using the microblogging service.

“The challenge is to actually convince people. Low trust in politics is the enemy of democracy at the moment,” Mr Howitt said.

And if politicians manage to convince people, the different electoral systems do not always allow EU citizens to express their opinion at the ballot box, said Karen Melchior, a Danish candidate for the EP elections:

“Social media do not determine whether you as a single candidate will be elected,” she said.

Andy Williamson, an expert on digital democracy, contested the politicians’ positive image of the voters: “People don’t want to be more involved in democracy. Getting more of them involved in politics will cost money.”

Mr Williamson asked the golden question: “Are you willing to pay higher taxes for that?”

The panellists agreed social media have become an important instrument for politicians, but their influence should not be overestimated:

“We are talking about social media and the elections – that’s good”, Ben Fowkes from Delib. But the 2014 European Elections will surely not be the first social media elections.

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