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Editor’s blog – Social networks and the EU, the untapped potential for citizen engagement

By Dean Carroll

If Twitter is king and social networks are now the most powerful mediums of communication in the world, trumping even television and the media in their global reach and immediacy, we have to ask – just how well is the European Union using these new tools? Are EU leaders and officials evolving their social media strategies in order to engage with the citizens they represent?

Well, the union is certainly not using the new technological mediums of mass communication to counter the Eurosceptic’s take on the European project. The anti-EU discussion in the media and among citizens in member states like the United Kingdom, Italy and Greece might well be considered to be immature and toxic by the Brussels bubble. But ignoring it, rather than tackling the debate head on, will only deepen the divide. And social networks have a huge part to play here.

We are still very much in the transition stage to true digital governance. Are most presidents, commissioners, MEPs and EU spokespersons on Twitter? Well, yes, they are and some even have blogs – anodyne as they are, in the main. In fact, I would argue that as a collective whole the EU is still not truly engaged. The majority of EU politicians and officials use social media simply to promote their latest press release. Some do relate to citizens by having actual online conversations and setting out their diaries but that is a minority position.

To be fair, though, and speaking relatively – more and more European commissioners are taking an increasingly inter-active stance. It appears that they have been told they must engage with social media. Either that or they are organically catching up with the rest of society. But when it comes to the high-profile EU positions, only the European Parliament president really makes an effort by entering into actual dialogue with the Twitterati and Facebookers.

The EP president leads the way in some ways by being creative in the use of technology, even hosting hour-long Facebook chats. It shows how you can be ground-breaking if you put real effort in. But both the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council are notable by their absence, in terms of a real human connection online, as is the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs. Indeed, Catherine Ashton is not on Twitter at all. This speaks volumes for her remote approach and that of the opaque European External Action Service.

The national picture, certainly in Britain, seems to be much healthier to the point where lots of politicians and officials are getting themselves into trouble by saying things on Twitter that they would not say elsewhere. There have been a few scandals, as many in the media now watch important Twitter and Facebook accounts like hawks with notepads and pens poised; so you do need to strike a balance. In general, though, it is fair to say that the EU’s democratic deficit has extended to social media and the blogosphere.

This, of course, only widens the gap between the Eurosceptics in a country like the UK and the Europhiles in Brussels and beyond. Just look at Italy and the way that Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement won so many seats in what historians may in future come to call the first Twitter election. Grillo and his peers used social media to organise and to spread their anti-EU and anti-austerity message.

Meanwhile, the taciturn great and the good of the supranational players just sat back and watched it happen. The arrogance is almost palpable. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy even told me “Grillo has votes but no policies”. He is kind of missing the point there. This is about put-upon citizens feeling they have a voice. Through anti-establishment characters like Grillo, they can sense a connection. When it comes to Van Rompuy and co, they feel only resentment and detachment.

So how do we move things forward? A good start would be for more politicians and officials to post things on social media themselves, rather than outsourcing the job completely to one of their staff. Some do and put their initials after the message when it is done personally, but this is infrequent. You can tell when a real person is making a point that is close to his or her heart, rather than a press officer trying to spin the latest PR line.

This is part of belonging to the online community. It is reciprocal in that when you see something of value, you post it on Facebook or re-tweet it. Others then do the same for things you have posted that chime with their outlook or interests. Actually, MEPs are pretty good at doing this. Something that cannot be said about individuals working in the other EU institutions. The problem is that the only EU institution performing well on social media is the European Parliament and it is seen as toothless by citizens due to its lack of power. And the myriad lobbying scandals in the EP are another blog altogether.

However, just doing more and doing it better – and smarter – is the way forward. The EU now has self-serving projects like the European Citizens’ Initiative. These are cumbersome tools that do not really connect with the public. Really, their design serves the institutions more than the citizens. For policy agendas that are supposed to reach out to the European demos, they are extremely inward looking. The technological binoculars, so to speak, are facing towards EU institutions and power bases – rather than pointing outwards towards citizens.

If the EU is serious about talking to young people through mass mediums of communication, it has to refocus. Bloggers often talk about the dead-tress press and while this is over-egging the pudding, it is certainly true that young people rarely read newspapers or printed publications nowadays. They get everything they need online and, indeed, live much of their lives through social media. What better reason is there for the EU to be more proactive, instead of reactive, when it comes to the online world?

So is there an actual EU online public sphere already or is it just the Brussels bubble of journalists, lobbyists and consultants? Unfortunately, it is the latter rather than the former. And the landscape would benefit from some honest, and interesting, politicians and officials entering the club. Much of the blogging done by commissioners and alike is tainted by managerese and thinly-veiled public relations content.

We are not saying that these people should commit career suicide by ranting and raving online but a balance could be struck. Everyone respects a strong opinion on a topic – even, if it happens to be an opinion they disagree with – just so long as it is real and not some meaningless spin-doctor jargon. Just because the medium being used to communicate is virtual, that does not mean the message should be watered down or lacking in authenticity.

The EU has to communicate better on social media if it really wants to play a part in the lives of future generations. The internet is not going away anytime soon. Its influence will only grow and to try to go against the grain of that, by not fully utilising its capabilities, is the digital equivalent of sticking your head in the sand.

Some may say that we are spending too much time on social networks, that we should be getting on with our day jobs or living a real life beyond the virtual world. To those people I say, we must do both and multi-task. Twitter and Facebook can give you a real-time idea of exactly what your audience is interested in, what they like and dislike, so it cannot be ignored.

It is also immediate and global in scale – with the potential to drive major geopolitical change – as the Arab Spring showed us. The pros are outweighed by the cons. That does not mean you need to be chained to your keyboard or superglued to your smartphone but you do have to do more than pay social media lip service, as it is easy to argue that the EU is doing currently.

In terms of new media, the union is not only missing a trick by not communicating well with citizens. It also falls down here with journalists and this tells a story in its own right. Most of our contact with the EU still comes via the traditional route of email and the telephone. Social networks are just not used in that way as yet but the union should be innovating by Tweeting things at journalists and so on.

We are still a long way from that technological utopia that the pointy heads out there in Silicon Valley have promised us. Ayn Rand and other writers of that ilk got some things right about the future but we have not quite reached the cybernetic society or self-stabilising system of connected individuals – feeding back information – that is often talked about.

And the information that the commission, the European Council et al do put on social networks is far from being easily digestible for citizens. The EU does not help itself. Even where it has a good story to tell citizens, the language used in communications is so stilted and impenetrable that most people – who are not part of the Brussels elite – do not get beyond the first few words. Some institutions are worse than others but they are all pretty bad when it comes to delivering simple and concise information.

So, in summary, the task ahead is huge when it comes to proving the benefits of the union, to citizens in the UK and beyond, through new media. However, the longer the fundamental problems are left to fester the more difficult they will be to overcome. Never mind being behind the curve in terms of online engagement, at the moment the EU is yet to enter the starting gate.

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