Dimitra Kagioglou, Dinesh George Lourdes, Evgeniya Kreslova, Maria Oliva, Nele Mirjam Werner, Siyu Xu
Once upon a time, the political debates were provided to the public through media reporting. Now within a minute we are able to get informed instantly via social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube are a new communication field being used by the EU Institutions to communicate with the audiences and particularly with young citizens.
Could this imply that we are in front of an alternative public sphere shaped by social media, that can rouse young citizens to engage in the EU debate? Well, potentially.
Especially for the European Union, new technologies could become very inclusive. Although, it has often been assumed that with 28 Member States, 508 million inhabitants, 24 official languages and more than 60 minority languages, it is not possible to establish a common public space.
The results of Eurobarometer “European Youth in 2016” stated that 46% of youth in EU believing that online social networks represent progress for democracy because they allow everyone to take part in public debate. In this regard, European Institutions are very active on their social media profiles, sharing daily information about their activities through audio-visual content and also receiving feedback from their followers.
Yet the youth engagement to the EU is even more complex. Despite the fact that the youngest Europeans (18-24) were more positive about the European Union than the oldest (55+), the turnout among youthful voters in the European elections of May 2014 (18-24) was low, at 28%. These results stress that youth participation in the elections is not the best it could be.
On the one hand, the EU Institutions invest a lot in social media in order to empower interaction and engage young people in EU politics. Initiatives include smartphone apps, blogging and social media campaigns aiming to revolutionize and alternate how young people consider politics. Online petitions are already making it possible for European citizens from different countries to work together and to address the European institutions directly.
For instance, Europe for Citizens programme aims at encouraging direct participation of citizens at EU level and promoting exchange between the EU institutions, civil society organizations and municipalities. In any case, these commendable initiatives do not seem to make a difference in increasing youth turnout.
While politicians and organisations devote a considerable time to social media, debates on politics bounce back and forth often without resolution. Social media may create awareness but real political change needs actual decision-making. To make social media communication more reliable, effective and hopefully, more civil we should focus more on the openness in EU Law and in education on logic, statistics and political rhetoric.
Young people developed different forms of political activism and participation, such as volunteering and expressing political opinions through their own digital and social media. A good example of cooperation between EU institutions and young citizens was when the Youth Forum and the Youth Intergroup launched a campaign in order to ban unpaid internships in EU institutions. The youth participation was great and an entire global movement rose reclaiming dignity for interns by the hashtag #fairinternships.
But the platforms are not enough to generate international dissemination. Since common language, culture and demos are missing as connecting elements, the European citizen’s commitment needs concrete common goals and topics. Klaus Eder explains that a common theme for which people could commonly flag together can be the connecting element for international public Sphere, as international networks do not arise through common culture or language.
However, since the information is the key issue, another important problem weakening the European public sphere is the lack of pan-european mass media. In contrast, national mainstream media tend to inform about European news in terms of national politics, without fostering a wider debate on European issues.
But do the digital platforms really create a new Public Sphere or just give it another level?
While some argue that social media has promoted the return of a public sphere, others attribute the increasing levels of political activity on the internet to citizens who are already politically committed. That could mean that social media have only a very limited effect on getting disengaged citizens to engage. But for those who are already active, it is a new tool that brings everyone closer to an ‘Agora’ rational debate.
For sure after the emergence of social media, public sphere will never be quite the same. The question is: Could social media be transformed from a place for “happy” interactions to a dynamic participatory EU mechanism? The next European elections will be in 2019. Shall the citizens find their way to the polls?