Power is moving to the internet and only politicians and political parties that adapt to this new reality will survive in the future is the stark message sent to MEPs on the eve of EU elections.
“Power is shifting from hierarchies to citizens and networks of citizens,” Alec Ross, a US social media expert, told an audience in the European Parliament on Wednesday (2 April).
With membership of political parties on the decrease coupled with the expected low turnout for the May EU vote, Ross, who worked for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, said both EU institutions and MEPs need to attract voters online.
Figures show that young voters – voting for the first or second time in their lives – in Western Europe spend an average of five hours a day online. In central and eastern Europe the average is six hours.
“If you [MEPs and political parties] do not want to see your support go increasingly down, then what you need to do is be more and more aggressive about meeting new voters where they are, which is online,” said Ross.
EU leaders ‘overwhelmed’
He added that the traditional binary construct of left/right ideology has been replaced by open versus closed information and political systems.
However EU leaders often feel “overwhelmed” by this new power shift as they can no longer control the message, which in yesteryear was usually sent to voters twice a day through their newspaper and the daily TV news in the evening.
Now the message risks getting distorted, mocked or trashed by those who receive it.
But it is not just a case of hastening online to open a twitter or facebook account and then hoping something good will come of it.
MEPs – 400 of the 766 are currently on twitter – should be active, honest and write their twitter updates themselves, said Matthias Luefkens, in charge of digital issues at PR firm Burson Marsteller.
They also need a social media team to follow up on questions or issues raised by voters on twitter or facebook.
For example, UK leader David Cameron was lampooned when his Twitter account featured a photo of him discussing policy on the phone with US President Barack Obama. His social media team deflated the ridicule by reacting with humour.