Transforming European Democracy through New Technologies

A new paper from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media in the independent British think tank, Demos, maps the emerging challenges and opportunities presented by the growing presence of digital and social media in European politics.

Supported by the Open Society European Policy Institute, e-Democracy in the EU identifies three major disruptive trends that the growth of digital technologies are driving in the European political sphere:

  • New expectations for political engagement and decision-making – voters recognise that leaders are out-of-touch, but are still engaged with the idea of politics itself
  • New affiliations and locations – as formal membership of parties falls, people are looking to other forms of online affiliations to express their views; yet these remain disconnected from traditional political institutions
  • New sources and types of information – both voters and political actors are overwhelmed by the growth of information available in the online sphere; this information cannot always be deemed to be reliable, nor to help citizens make informed decisions

Exploring how MEPs are engaging with social media to communicate with European citizens, the paper then sets out how political leaders can respond to these challenges, and harness them as opportunities to enrich democracy within the European Union.

Key findings from the new Demos analysis of MEPs’ Twitter engagement in March and April 2015, based on a data-set of over one million tweets to, from or about MEPs, include:

  • While there is an enormous level of disparity in the level and way in which social media is being used within European politics, it is becoming an increasingly important platform for democratic engagement – with over a quarter of a million people using it to communicate with their MEPs over a one-month period
  • This “explosion of Twitter activity” is challenging for MEPs to address in a consistent way, and their inability to do so may make them appear disengaged
  • MEPs from smaller parties and party groups are more active on Twitter, and use it in a more collaborative and engaging way than those from larger organisations – which Demos believes is playing a strong role in their emerging popularity as challenging traditional politics.

The authors conclude that, while digital tools present a unique opportunity to help connect citizens with the political sphere, if mismanaged, they also risk further entrenching disillusionment and disengagement.

They recommend the European Union, and particularly the European Parliament:

  • Increase their use of online platforms as a means of communicating and educating citizens about new and existing types of legislation
  • Use digital technologies to make deliberation more interactive and consultative – giving opportunities for the public to comment, discuss and share views on new proposals
  • Increase their presence in forums where people are engaging in political discussions – even those outside of the traditional institutions
  • Draw on the Internet as a resource to identify issues that are important to citizens but have been overlooked in political processes
  • Create new avenues for citizens to submit petitions and proposals, supported by a unique user authentication system to ensure the process cannot be captured by a small number of vocal or influential people
  • Build a data dashboard that is freely available to all MEPs, to better allow them to make sense of the new ‘digital commons’

More broadly, the authors also call on the European Union to provide greater transparency and accountability by publishing more information online – including information on annual budget allocations and financial performance – and adopt a policy of making publicly available all data for which there is no clear overriding reason for privacy, in an accessible and readable format.

Commenting on the report, its lead author, Jamie Bartlett (Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos) said:

‘Social media has become an important digital commons for citizens to broadcast and discuss political issues with each other and directly to their elected representatives. While there are lots of difficulties in translating that into formal political decision making, it does offer an exciting prospect of making democracies more responsive, representative and open. Rather than being perennially behind big commercial companies in using social media to listen to people’s views – those tasked with representing us should be leading the way.’

DOWNLOAD THE REPORT

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Notes to Editors

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think tank. We are an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research. Visit: www.demos.co.uk.

This report was supported by the Open Society European Policy Institute, which is part of the Open Society Foundation. Visit: www.opensocietyfoundations.org

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