Earlier today, Debating Europe was at the Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) conference in Brussels (#pdfbrussels on Twitter). The theme of this year’s event was “Finding Europe’s Public Place” – looking at how social media and other technologies might help “burst the Brussels bubble” and foster a common European public sphere (and it’s perhaps worth glancing back at some of the debates we’ve already had on the problem of forming a common “demos” in Europe).
Also today, voters in Ireland’s referendum on the fiscal treaty have been staying away from voting booths in large numbers (though things could pick up later this evening). By 2.30pm, voter turnout in Ireland was only predicted to be between 15% and 20%. If social media and other digital technologies are really going to forge a European public sphere, then it looks like they might have their work cut out for them. As one of the participants (a journalist) during the PdF conference put it: “When you say European Union, I fall asleep“. Is this the root of the problem? Is the EU simply too boring? And, if so, will social media really be enough to get people interested?
Blogger Ron Patz, who was also speaking at PdF, presented a more hopeful picture. Obviously, there are plenty of people interested in discussing the EU and how it affects their daily lives (and you can read our 2012 snapshot report for some of their views) but much of that discussion is taking place at the national level, on national blogs, websites and social networks. The language barrier, of course, doesn’t help.
Some time ago, regular commenter Nikolai left us an optimistic remark about the potential for social media to positively affect politics:
In these times of bottom-up social pressure on governments enabled by the soft power social media now provides, almost to the point of removing civil society/NGOs and main stream media from the debate, informing the great unwashed masses directly is by far the best method to keep both traction and momentum with any policy.
But do social media (and other online tools) really have the potential to replace mainstream media and civil society as intermediaries between citizens and policy-makers? Earlier this year, we spoke to Mark Wilson, Executive Director of Panos London, an independent NGO that promotes the participation of poor and marginalised people through media and communication projects. We asked him if Nikolai was overestimating the potential impact of social media on politics:
What do YOU think? Will social media be one of the tools that helps grow a European public sphere? How is it going to impact democracy and politics in Europe? Is it being over-hyped? And what chances are there of forming a European public space online (or does one exist already)? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.