The upcoming European elections will offer a valuable insight into the current state of democracy in the EU. While the vote will lay the foundations for a greater involvement of citizens in the Union's policy-making process, a poor result may end up undermining the legitimacy of the EU system as a whole. One aspect likely to be tested is the much-lauded value of social media as a tool of democratic participation. With discontent concerning EU institutions growing at an alarming pace, policy-makers are on the lookout for new opportunities to reach out to citizens and many believe social media could be the key to finally drive turnout up. Could social media actually encourage citizens to walk to the polling booths?
To begin with, all those Web enthusiasts picturing the 2014 elections as a potentially European version of the 2012 Obama campaign are likely to remain disappointed. Obama spent 47 million dollars for his digital campaign: a sum not even comparable with the budget in the pockets of candidates running for a seat in the next EP. The true secret behind his success was a systematic use of big data, which could hardly fall within the boundaries of the European legal framework, with its much stricter regulations on privacy issues. And if you think about the profound differences between the US and the EU political systems, the Obama analogy becomes even more problematic.
A better approach is to look at one of the factors that most affects people's willingness to get involved in politics: their trust in political institutions. Over the last decade, citizens' faith in the EU has declined hand in hand with turnout at EP elections. Both dropped by 3 per cent in the five years prior to the 2009 vote, which registered the lowest turnout rate in the history of the European Parliament. Since then trust levels have gone from 47 to a worrying 31 per cent, and many take this as a sign that the next elections might reach an unprecedented low in terms of participation.
Strengthening relationships and building trust is something social media is potentially really good at. Users can reach people they would otherwise be unable to reach, and engage in a direct and immediate dialogue with them, which is essential to earn people's trust. According to the Labour MEP Richard Howitt - who spoke at an event held in December at Europe House, London - social media is much more than an effective tool for getting to as many citizens as possible. In his view, "the increased insight into the lives of politicians brought about by social media will [also] allow the public to see that 'they are just normal people'." Trust cannot come without authenticity: treating people merely as a target for propaganda not only isn't going to do the job but in many cases may even reveal counterproductive.
The EU seems to be on the right track in this sense: three months away from the vote, its digital campaign shows a genuine commitment to values of accountability and transparency. The EP has created an online platform combining multi-media content from different social networks, including a page dedicated to the online activities of single MEPs. Moreover, on the MyVote2014 portal citizens can access information on party policies and single issues, learn how each party member has voted and even discover interactively how EU policies would change if decided upon by users.
This strategy could well succeed in convincing part of the electorate to cast their vote in May. But as some have noted, it might have a hard time reaching fervent Euro-sceptics as well as militant abstainers. Increasing turnout might ultimately depend as much on politicians as on citizens themselves. At the end of the day, it is not the politicians that most influence thoughts and behaviours, but the people we really trust, be they friends and colleagues or our favourite writers and journalists. From this perspective, spreading engaging content online in order to get people to talk about the elections may prove even more effective than interacting with them directly.
With 350 million users potentially connected to each other, social media could be the public space the EU has always lacked; a place where transnational issues can be discussed and where popular debate could suddenly develop a pan-European dimension. The mainstream media no longer retain their traditional monopoly of news and, therefore, no longer exclusively define the parameters of public discussion. Thanks to Twitter, British people were able to follow the 2013 election campaign in Germany to an extent it would have never been possible by simply relying on national media. New technologies are helping Europeans come together despite geographic and language barriers, which in the long run may create a stronger sense of identity among them. And history teaches us that identity is another powerful fuel for political action.
Social media could play an important role in boosting turnout at the next EP elections. But, maybe, not in the way people think. Listening to citizens' voices online will be a crucial step towards reconnecting them to Europe, while making EU democracy more transparent and accountable will help Brussels restore part of its lost legitimacy. Yet social media's potential will not be fully exploited unless citizens begin using it consistently as a platform for discussing Europe with fellow Europeans. Building trust is hardly ever a top-down process: whatever happens in May, constructive change will be driven largely by the people.