Social media can be something of a double-edged sword for politicians. Obviously, here at Debating Europe we rely heavily on social media (and, if you aren’t already, you really should be following us on Facebook and Twitter), so we want to encourage European policy-makers and citizens to take to this form of communication with enthusiasm. However, for every President Obama breaking records with his bazillions of followers, there are thousands of examples of politicians very publicly falling flat on their digital faces.
The EU has plenty of experience in this regard, from the European Commission being accused of racism and sexism in its YouTube videos, to the British Liberal Democrat MEP being reprimanded by his party over a badly-timed tweet last week, to the Flemish MEP who appeared in a decidely odd video on YouTube in 2006 (a video that was recently dug up by intrepid bloggers). These kind of gaffes, however, have always been a part of politics. Does social media bring anything new to democracy? How is social media changing politics?
We recently had the chance to speak to the Obama campaign’s social media strategist, Facebook’s Adam Conner, during a Friends of Europe dinner debate. We started off by asking for his reaction to a comment from Christos, who argued that:
When it comes to receiving advice, our leaders may find it better to listen to a housewife, [rather than] a detached-from-reality financier [who only wants to] make profit and practice what he was taught in Harvard… So, if I was our leaders, I would pay more attention to what the people have to say in social media and blogs…
Which begs the question, how much do politicians really pay attention to what is being written about them in blogs and on social networks? Does Obama ever dive down into his Facebook comments, or does that way lie madness?
Next, we had an interesting point made in the comments by Samo:
Social media has a great potential in bringing democracy to every citizen’s home, but we first need to motivate people to participate.
Even if people are listening to your message online, how do you actually motivate people to participate in the ‘real world’? How can you translate clicking a ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ button online into actually going out and voting or engaging in politics offline?
Our next comment came from Nikolai, who was optimistic about the potential for social media to positively affect politics:
[Social media puts pressure on governments] almost to the point of removing civil society/NGOs and mainstream 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 is Nikolai being overly-optimistic when he argues that civil society, NGOs and the mainstream media could be removed from the debate by social media?
Finally, we had a related comment sent in by Lazaros, who argued that:
The emergence of social media has played a huge role in discovering what is called the ‘real’ reality and not what we were fed by the media till recently.
But how do you define what is the ‘real’ reality? Isn’t there a danger that Lazaros and his friends and contacts will just create a mutually-reinforcing bubble online, where he only talks to people that share his political views and agree with him?
What do YOU think? How is social media changing politics? Is it offering us new ways to interact with, influence and keep watch over our politicians? Or is online ‘slacktivism’ replacing physical campaigning and political activism? Does social media provide an alternative source of news? Or does it just create mutually-reinforcing bubbles of friends and contacts, who shut out different opinions and beliefs? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.
Debating Europe will be attending the 6th International Conference on Computers, Privacy and Data Protection in Brussels this week, so let us know if you have any questions on privacy or data protection that you’d like answered.