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32% of Europeans use the internet to follow politics. However, that number is even higher for young people, and over 40% of Europeans aged 15-24 say they have expressed their views on public issues via social media in the past two years versus only 25% of 45-54 year olds. And, despite declining voter participation, a wave of so-called “populist parties” are challenging mainstream traditional political parties in many European countries, often making effective use of social media in order to do so.

As part of our Debating Europe Schools series, we’ve been taking questions about politics and social media from European students to policymakers and experts for them to answer. For today’s debate, we had questions sent in from students from the Deutsche Internationale Schule Den Haag, in the Netherlands, and the Debating Society of St. George’s International School, Luxembourg.

Curious to know more about social media and how it effects European politics? We’ve put together some facts and figures about how European politicians are using social media in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).

SM-Eupolitics

Young people were less likely to vote than any other group in the 2014 European Parliament elections. We had a question sent in from a student from the Debating Club of St. George’s International School, Luxembourg, asking whether social media could help the EU to reach out to young people and engage them in political debate.

To get a response, we spoke to Matthias Lüfkens (@luefkens), the founder of Twiplomacy, a website that analyses how politicians and international organisations are using the social network Twitter to communicate globally.

lufkensThat’s a very, very good question. Absolutely, I think social media is really the way to communicate, not only with a younger audience but with any citizen who cares to be involved… But will this drive more people to the polling booth? I’m not sure. A large of number of people are no longer going to vote on election day, and I’m not sure that social media is the “magic bullet” to reverse that.

However, if you look at the Estonian experience, where you can now vote online, it takes 3 minutes to validate your identity and vote using your computer or smart phone. I think that might help improve the political engagement of young people once it is rolled out in other countries and on a larger scale. So, I do absolutely think that social media is the way forward, but it’s just part of a broader solution.

To get another perspective, we also put the same question to Dino Amenduni (@doonie), partner at Proforma, an Italian web communications agency that works with political and institutional clients. Does he think social media could help the EU to reach out to young people?

dino-amenduniI think social media is better at helping to inform young people than it is at actively involving them in the European political debate. There is no doubt about the potential of social media for informing people: the Millenials use the Internet, and social media in particular, as their main source of news and interesting stories. But the ability of a European institution to engage citizens is a matter of what they say, rather than the channel they use to talk to people.

From this point of view, I think we need to reflect on the way the European Union is communicated, because it is perceived as being ’too far’ from national debates. If you are unable to explain how Europe influences (for the better, when possible) the daily lives of people, it will be difficult to see large mobilizations of young people, whether online or offline.

Next, we had another question from a student from St. George’s International School, Luxembourg, pointing out that politicians often distribute leaflets to voters through letterboxes during election campaigns. So, the student asked, would it be ethical for them to also send Twitter and Facebook messages to people who may not want to receive unsolicited political approaches?

lufkensWell, this is a very, very good point. Many politicians discover social media during election campaigns and they will actually do a ‘leaflet drop’ on their Facebook or Twitter pages. If you look at their posts, they’re more one-way communication to their fans.

So, it’s not really accurate to say they ‘spam’ people who are not their fans or Twitter followers (unless, of course, they pay for a promoted post) but it is true that they really only use social media as a tool to broadcast. What they’re missing is that, compared to the old-fashioned ‘leaflet drop’, social media is a two-way communication tool. So, you can’t just distribute your press release on social media, you really have to engage with people… But, if you don’t want to listen to them then don’t become a fan of them or follow them on Twitter!

And how would Dino Amenduni respond? Is it justified for politicians to send unsolicited messages to social media users?

dino-amenduniIf we considered it unethical to communicate with people who aren’t already politically motivated, then politicians should just give up campaigning… In my country, Italy, trust in political parties is at 3%, and the people who are motivated to get information from politics are very few.

At the same time, political communication is a right and institutional communication is a duty, so I don’t think there are ethical issues. However, it is another question when we are talking about the use of money for political advertising, especially on social media. For example, sponsored posts on Facebook are best directed only to those users who ‘likes’ the official page of candidates, parties, institutions. Talking to people online when they are not interested is potentially dangerous for a politician, even before ethically considerations are taken into account, because an unsolicited communication could easily attract negative comments.

Finally, we had a comment from a student of the Deutsche Internationale Schule Den Haag, in the Netherlands. The student asked if young people would be more engaged with politics if their views were better represented by politicians on social media. What would Matthias Lüfkens say?

lufkensWell, we live in a democratic system where officials are elected and it’s not just mob rule. Sometimes, if you look on social media, it’s like a big demonstration. If we all sign up to a hashtag, it’s probably representative of a certain sector of the population but it’s not representative of the entire population. So, yes, even if young people are very vocal on social media, I’m not sure we should gauge mass movements on social media as actually representing what everybody in a country is thinking. So, we have to be very careful there. I’m afraid if policy was being made purely according to online petitions and so on, it could also be detrimental to democracy.

So, I think we have to be very, very careful. Social media is only one aspect of how we interact with our politicians and, as I said, we live in a democratic system where officials are elected every four to five years, so it is definitely a challenge for politicians who see there is an online community and it’s very vocal. How should they bring that online community into the decision-making process? So, yes, it is definitely a challenge.

Finally, how would Dino Amenduni respond to the student?

dino-amenduniOnce again, we must not overestimate the importance of the channel used, nor underestimate the quality of the content we want to communicate. Using social media is certainly the best way to reach the younger generation, but if we don’t have anything interesting to say, or if we use ‘new’ channels to share ‘old’ content, then an online presence will not bring any advantages.

The recipe is: communicate to different audiences, using various channels, to say what matters to every single audience member, and do it with their language, rather than with ours. Maybe political Millenials could have a real competitive advantage in the coming years, because they are fully aware of the key features of these tools and have first-hand knowledge of how to use them.

Can social media help engage young people in politics? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Michael Coghlan


59 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. Nando Aidos

    This is not the right question. The question is:
    – what will engage young people in politics?
    Ask the open question and directly to the target audience, the young people!

    • Joe.

      Yes…if. One. Want to became. A. Milliner very quick. Politics. is. The. key………

  2. Paul X

    Social media does not encourage anyone to engage with anything. It encourages people to isolate themselves in their bedrooms exchanging inane comments and photos with supposed online “friends”

  3. Kostas Tsole

    Imho the answer is no. If somebody is not already interested, how can he start to be interested? in the contrary I would say that social media are mainly used for fun/socialising/gossiping/following hobbies and lifestyle trends, and can thus even be driving people’s attention away from political problems

  4. Tony Kunnari

    We can do even better. We can directly engage politics through social media and navigate it the way we want.

  5. nando

    Another interesting question – can politics be engaged through the social media? Or will politics forever be locked in party mechanisms?

  6. Nando Aidos

    Another, more interesting question
    – can politics be engaged through the social media?
    – or will politics forever be locked in party mechanisms?

  7. Eva Benko Zoltan

    I suppose. As they are poor they would get on the side of the parties of left, but what people want is a real left party engaged in helping the poor , not the oliguarqui. We have to fight all to get the corrupt into prison and make them give back the stolen money. That could make some change and teach people to be more honest.

  8. Roxanne Julie

    Yes, but in a very superficial and unprofitable way most of the times. Social media is fun because it is fast and can be used anonymously. Most of the people commenting on important subjects know little to nothing about the subjects and they are there just to express their own frustrations, preconceived ideas and unfortunately, hate. Or for me, debating is the opposite of superficial, preconceived ideas. For example, take a look at your page Debating Europe, see how many comments really are part of a debate. Most of the people write “yes”, “no”, or leave hate messages about Europe. There is no critique, no personal justified input, how can you engage a political debate with young people who have no patience and no reflexion? Of course, I don’t mean all young people, but, as I see it, most of them. Please prove me wrong! And to comment on your article, I follow a lot of politicians on Twitter, but I rarely read their tweets, I simply don’t have time to keep up with the information flux. I get informed on the internet, but inform doesn’t mean “know”. Plus, social medias can be used to manipulate and disinform, social medias are part of a war most of us don’t even see: infowar. For me the statistics you provided aren’t a guarantee of quality.

  9. triskij

    Yes, it could. At the same time I think that poor interest in politics from young people is not just an european problem, but a national one. This is also, and mainly, a content matter. Politicians can’t vehicle messages well because the quality of the message is not that good. If they will start involving people through debates and consultations on real issues, well, the social media will be the best channel for it.

  10. Rick Hoppmann

    The debate outlined in the article describes well my thoughts as well.

    – I use Twitter to keep updated and take action in my main area of interest: Ecological Causes
    – I don’t really follow any other political areas

    Why? Yes, because institutions mostly use Twitter to broadcast their message, not really interact. The way they communicate it does not interest me in the topic itself.

    I use social media to stay up to date with topics I’m already interested in. It does however fail for me to interest me in other political areas.
    I think the marketing departments of the EU need to ask themselves: “How to tell our message in an interesting way?”

    • Rick Hoppmann

      By the way, this debate platform has a good design and marketing concept in my opinion.

    • Marcel

      How exactly do you tell the message ‘the EU is 100% undemocratic and we like it that way’ in an interesting way?

      The reason the EU is never properly explained is precisely that. The reason politicians don’t really want to is because they’d have to explain why democracy is being abolished in a stealthy way.

  11. john bevegaard.

    hi we need a strong eu soft Power in the World but with a strongh eu defence battlegroups and nato. a green ecofriendly sustainable economy go eu johnnyb.

  12. john bevegaard.

    hi we need a strong eu soft Power in the World but with a strong eu defence and battlegroups….and nato wuith us too… a green ecofriendly sustainable economy a friendly and democratic union we must beable to vote for the topp jobs politicians in the eeu Commission eu president and foreign minister and also a stronger parliament to checks and balances more like the usa but still its europé with nation states and coillaborating all for one and etc unity in diversity. go strong eu johnnyb.

  13. Stella Kontogianni

    Perhaps but not sure. Most of young politicians are treated in negative way by older ones. I have noticed it recently. They are considered not experienced although they are highly qualified. Personally I believe in young politicians. They adminitrate our generation more than older

  14. Nando Aidos

    New open minds from the politicians side will engage young (and old) people in politics. Facebook and Twitter are and will be tools only, not drivers!
    This is a misconception of technology that it will change the world in every aspect regardless of what goes behind the technology.

  15. Michalis Pouros

    Fair policies for people will built trust to the youth. The austerity of Mrs Merkel increases unmployment and young people are getting more and more disappointed…..

  16. Ed Cocks

    Defintely. However, providing facts, realities and valid considerations to the discussions is essential to making it constructive rather than a playground of young children pretending to be adults.

  17. Rui Duarte

    Should YOUNG people be brought into politics? I think one of the problems we have is too many «carreer politicians», people who went into politics at a young age and never really worked for a living. Those people because «professional bullshitters» and developped networks of malfeasance: they spent their whole lives on the stage, living apart from «real life».

  18. Daniele Scaramelli

    On the irrelevance of social media. Being “connected” does not mean being smart, or having any skill. You just post your irrelevant opinions.

  19. Tommaso Carmassi

    Renzi has 63% of real followers on Twitter (600k are fake profiles) , Grillo has 36% of real follower on Twitter (more than 1million are fake)…so: now you know why…

  20. David Cavafis

    A study considering that Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Pablo Iglesias share the same values, it’s not a study worth reading.

    You cannot compare a party which defend direct democracy and to implement new ways to increase the citizen participation in the decission-making process, a party which elects its candidates in primaries and which has born from the citizen movements (like the 15 m, occupy Wall Street,…) with traditional parties that exist after more than 20 years in most of cases, with a traditional decission-making process and a traditional conception of politics.

    You may like these conceptions or not, but there are clear differences. It’s not the same to change the system than to substitute a party with another party, “cambiare tutto per non cambiare nulla”, as Lampedusa said in the Gattopardo.

    While in UK are debating about the EU membership, while France debates about inmigration, Spaniards debate about to create a new political system, less corrupted and more participative, or to keep an old one.

    Different debates, isn’t it?

  21. Breogán Costa

    In any case, take into account that they just will read the head of news (even 140 characters are too much), and make an opinion with that.
    Then don’t have surprises when they vote or speak.

  22. Filipe Oliveira

    So ‘debating europe’ has the ability to rotulate parties that the establishment does not like as populist?

  23. Michalis Pillos

    New Media and specifically New Media is the only way to constructively invite younger people into the political conversation! Its #HappeningNow 😀

  24. Walter Bujalski

    Hi European Students
    Do residents of our planet including Europeans after too many flood tragedies finally deserve for safer & healthier future or NOT & WHY? If your answer is “YES| then see You & Tube – the uniblock technology flood and tsunami crises solution – then you can make the right decision ASAP, be3cause no one can predict when or where the next flood or the ecological disasters could be. I hope that you would agree with me. PREVENTION is always cheaper & less painful for any society than it deliberately ignorance & who is suffering the most? Now up to you – how long yet? As you see only the “UNIBLOCK” technology is guaranteed protection river’s banks from breaking or overflow without wasteful spending on useless “sand bags”. You can imagine the benefits such as my invention/solution to flood crisis around the world would have from health & environmental benefits to economic ones if you let suffering Europeans decide about their & my invention future by social media, because mass media is acting cowardly & who is suffering the most. Do Europeans finally deserve for safer future & thousands new jobs for many generations or not & why? Failure or success of young generation safer future is in your hands ONLY!!!
    Best regards
    Walter Bujalski

  25. Johnk250

    That alone wwas an egregious oversight on thheir own part, since deebegaedegc

  26. nando

    Yes, it can, at all age groups. But let us also use social media to educate people on the issues not just to engage them in the “political decisions” with limited information on the issues.

  27. Nando Aidos

    Yes, it can, at all age groups. But let us also use social media to educate people on the issues not just to engage them in the “political decisions” with limited information on the issues.

  28. Alex Tselentis

    MSN media outlets have been exposed promoting division, and war, people, the young mostly are tired of it and see through the lies and misinformation

  29. Niraja

    Surely, social media will engage young people in politics but only those who have interest in politics. You can’t try to engage people who hate politics through social media. The people you are trying to engage should be targeted.

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