The European Parliament elections - a 'social media election'?

MEPs in the chamber in Strasbourg

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Next May, millions of voters across the EU will go to the polls to elect the 751 members of the European Parliament.

In the five years since the last set of elections, there have been two developments that mean the poll could take on a greater significance than previously - the increase in the parliament's powers, and the explosive growth of social media.

However experts are currently divided over the extent to which the 2014 poll will be a true "social media election".

"This time it's different" is the slogan of the European Parliament's campaign to get people informed and interested in next year's poll.

But Thibault Lesenecal, the parliament's head of web communications insists it is more than just a slogan.

Speaking at a panel discussion in London to debate the role of social media in the 2014 elections, he says the new powers given to the parliament as a result of the Lisbon Treaty - which came into force shortly after the last set of elections - have boosted engagement with individual voters.

"The Brussels bubble does not exist online", he states, pointing to the fact that the parliament currently has around 1.1 million Facebook "likes", as well as engagement on a range of other social media outlets.

The EU vs the US

Start Quote

Social media is better for individual politicians rather than party brands.”

End Quote Dr Andy Williamson Consultant on digital engagement

The role of social media in the run-up to the May elections is lauded by British Labour MEP Richard Howitt.

"I can drive around my [East of England] constituency for two hours to address a public meeting of five people, whereas a post on Twitter instantly reaches thousands of potential voters", he says.

Echoing the words of Thibault Lesenecal he says that Twitter has allowed him to "break through the bubble".

Like many politicians, Mr Howitt has looked across the Atlantic and seen the role of social media in the US presidential elections.

But a strong note of caution is sounded by those who think there are limits to what EU politicians can learn from the Washington beltway.

"Let's get back to old-fashioned campaigning, " says Andy Williamson, a consultant and blogger on political digital engagement.

He remarks that studying the methods used by the Obama team is, in many respects, irrelevant.

"Social media is better for individual politicians rather than party brands," he notes. So in comparison with the rather straightforward choice on offer in US presidential elections, how can social media be used in the multi-party European Union with a multitude of parties, groups, personalities and even voting systems?

Dr Williamson is fairly clear that 2014 will not be a "social media election" and that it will, in fact, be a "business as usual election".

The very nature of the European Parliament elections means that despite a drive to "Europeanise" the elections, there will still be 28 broadly national campaigns taking place, and in each EU member state social media will play a different role.

"Social media in France has particularly benefited smaller parties," says Dr Williamson.

"Meanwhile in Poland social media is used as broadcast platform for the established political parties, whereas Denmark has true engagement on social media due to their use of open party lists".

As for the United Kingdom, Dr Williamson is fairly blunt: "the priority will still be 'old media', there won't be a social media election in the United Kingdom".

Karen Melchior Danish candidate Karen Melchior believes 2014 will see a social media election.

"Policies not personalities"

The difference in electoral systems is one reason why different countries will see varying uses of social media.

Although all countries use broadly proportional systems, some - like Denmark - use an open party list - where voters are able to rank candidates within a party list.

This contrasts with the closed party list system used in the UK, where the order of candidates is fixed by the party machine.

Danish Liberal candidate, Karen Melchior agrees with Dr Williamson that this could be one of the reason why there is differing uses of social media in each EU state.

She insists that, in her country at least, there will be a social media election.

Given the role of voters in choosing not only the parties but also the successful candidates, "people will engage on social media where they think they can have an impact".

In a rebuttal to the UK, she claims that social media will not work so well in a country where the electoral system is broadly in the hands of parties.

This angers Richard Howitt - top of the list in the East of England for Labour - who says that his Danish counterpart is "100% wrong", and that he has successfully used social media to engage with party members choosing their candidates.

"The closed list is not an undemocratic system," he insists, arguing that "it's a choice between policies not personalities".

Polling booth in England EU officials hope their efforts to promote the elections will lead to higher turnout at the ballot box.

A 'European' election?

In 2014 the outcome of the elections will not just decide the composition of the European Parliament - it could also determine who replaces Jose Manuel Barroso as president of the European Commission, one of the most senior roles of the EU.

The European parties are coming under pressure to announce their candidate well before the elections, with a view to holding "presidential style" debates between the contenders.

So far only the Party of European Socialists and the Party of the European Left have made their choice - opting for Germany's Martin Schulz and Greece's Alexis Tsipras respectively.

This further attempt to give the elections a more pan-European flavour could see another potential role to play for social media.

For many people in the UK, the only way to follow the recent debates ahead of the German election was on Twitter, and the micro-blogging site could come into its own as a pan-European space for debating subjects that cross national boundaries.

However whether or not social media does play a role in the elections, the key figure that people will be scrutinising is turnout.

In 2009, average turnout across the EU slumped to 43%, falling below 30% in six countries.

With electoral participation at such low levels - and following five years of EU-wide austerity, it may take more than simply MEPs increasing their number of Twitter followers or Facebook likes to really increase engagement.

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