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).
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.
That’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?
I 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?
Well, 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?
If 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?
Well, 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?
Once 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!