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2019 European Elections and Social Media

Politics and Social Media

"Political parties need to try their best to combine personal stories and human interest angles with policy discussions. Connecting these emotional dots with the policies that affect them should help them to make up ground on social media."

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten is Senior Lecturer in European Studies at Lund University in Sweden. She has written extensively on social media and politics. We spoke with Anamaria to get her thoughts on the upcoming European elections and how social media affects political campaigns.

1. Can you talk us through your thoughts on how social media is being used as a tool of polarization, especially in US politics? It’s beginning to look like we may follow a similar trend in Europe in the future, would you agree?

Anamaria Dutceac Segesten: Yes, I think social media is a tool that is well suited to those who wish to deliver polarized messages to the electorate. And it is not just the US that is experiencing this as we are seeing this happening across elections in Europe and elsewhere also.

Speaking about our own election here in Sweden, it can be seen that the Swedish Democrats, a far-right party, have gained significant ground by capitalizing on simple, emotive messages on social media. It was the same for Trump and for the Leave campaign in the UK around Brexit. It is a proven model now for influencing people.

Of course, polarized political views are nothing new. Political discourse is set up around an oppositional logic rather than politicians arguing cogently on issues. In this sense, social media is the perfect tool for crystalizing polarizing sentiments. The very act of tweeting or posting your political view can serve to harden that view and demand you take a side in the argument. No-one has ever claimed Twitter or Facebook to be places where you might go for nuanced arguments or in-depth discussions on topics.

2. In the run-up to European elections next year do you expect candidates and parties to use social media as one of their main areas for campaigning?

ADS: Yes, I think it is clear that social media campaigning is a must-have for any election campaign now. None more so than a European election race where the constituencies are so diverse and the ground is hard to cover. Think of the Spitzenkandidaten who, in theory, would have to travel across the continent to meet potential voters. Social media can help spread the message about these top candidates without requiring their physical presence. Moreover digital communication, even live, allows for translation in all the EU languages - this would eliminate a real obstacle in reaching out to voters from all the 27 Member States. Another issue is that European elections are different from national elections in that the electorate does not always feel very connected to what happens in Brussels, regardless of whether they are from Belgium or Berlin. Meeting that challenge and trying to highlight the relevance of EU to the electorate will be the task that politicians will face, and social media can help with that.

The onus must be put back on the political parties here, they have a big responsibility to bring Europe back into regular conversation. If we only talk about European elections every four years and go into hibernation thereafter then we can’t expect people to be engaged. The reality is that the politicians elected next year are very important legislators on the daily lives of Europeans and parties need to drive this point home, in their respective national constituencies, if they are to get better engagement with the European project.

3. It seems like campaigners that have an anti-establishment view like Euroscepticism do better on social media. Why do you think establishment parties struggle to have the same impact?

ADS: Bono described the EU this week as, “a thought that needs to become a feeling” and I think he is correct in that assessment. The political centre have ceded ground to populist forces and anti-EU campaigners by focusing too much on traditional communication routes.

As we have said, anti-establishment forces do have an advantage on social media as it seems to amplify simple, emotive messages much better than reasoned argument. What is also interesting though is how much the strategies and tactics of other populist campaigns have transferred to to the Eurosceptic view. I find it baffling that there can be such a strong alliance between nationalists, people who don’t like alliances with The Others, because after all the EU is one large alliance, is it not?

Traditional centrist parties have become complacent and probably didn’t buy into social media when they should have. The result being that we now see these late-adopters struggling to communicate at all. For the anti-establishment parties, necessity was the mother of invention: they had to take to social media because traditional media channels would not give them attention. Since they preferred emotionally charged messaging to presenting facts, social media has been the ideal space to share that.

Being on the fringes of politics has forced these candidates to be more creative and use more human interest stories to find voters. They care little for facts because facts don’t pull people in like they once did. But be aware while the messaging from anti-establishment parties is strong and grabs headlines now, it will still be a long time before we see it become a majority wave across Europe.

Traditional parties in Europe and political groupings that operate across the entire EU will need to learn these lessons and deliver their messaging more effectively. How will they do that? By using storytelling better, and by not being afraid to use emotional language.

Political parties need to try their best to combine personal stories and human interest angles with policy discussions. Connecting these emotional dots with the policies that affect them should help them to make up ground on social media.

4. At the moment political parties seem to run parallel campaigns on digital and ‘in real life’. How can these two sides of campaigning be squared?

ADS: This is a very scientific question. We need to look for the evidence in just how effective digital campaigns are, do they in fact spill over into real life results or are there other direct outcomes from these campaigns running side by side?

I often see them as spill over, but only in some areas. What we regard as “slacktivism” is very common nowadays from the part of the citizen-user. This low-cost form of engagement can mean anything between “listening” to political information online to changing one’s profile picture or signing a petition. We see an increase in political knowledge and understanding surrounding elections where we didn’t before thanks to work being done online. But we really cannot ascertain yet if this online activism has an effect on voting. If we place too much emphasis on social media, we may be left disappointed and may not see the results at the polls that we would expect. There is little empirical evidence just yet that social media campaigns have a direct bearing on voting outcomes.

What will be interesting in the European elections will be to see who can get digital campaigns working in concert with grassroots, ‘boots-on-the-ground’ campaigns. The information gathered on doorsteps needs to be used to seed social media messaging and vice versa. What parties are hearing back on social media needs to inform where grassroots efforts are focused. At the moment most political parties are still not doing this type of work effectively.

5. As someone who spends a lot of time researching social media practice, can you share with us a few people that have impressed you with what they are doing online either, political or non-political?

ADS: Funny you should ask that but it is also quite a difficult question for me to answer. My hesitance should be a good indicator that I am not terribly impressed with many politicians who operate on social. Many have shown themselves to be poor performers, lacking personality perhaps because they attempt to be something they are not.

If I had to pick one politician who I think operates well on social media and this is because they are consistent and come across as authentic, I would have to say Guy Verhofstadt. It’s cool because you don’t necessarily have to support someone's ideology to appreciate what they’re trying to do online. This is also a testament to his team who help him craft his messaging. It’s very clear that it’s well thought out.

From a non-political point of view, I follow Caitlin Moran. She’s a very funny British author who just gets Twitter!

Make sure to follow the Ecanvasser Blog for more in the Women in Politics 2018 series

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