by Mike Nelson
On October 4 and 5, a symposium on EU governance, supported by the EUC’s EU Center of Excellence grant, was held on the University of Illinois campus. The conference brought several scholars of the EU from around the country (plus one from the U.K.) together to analyze the European Parliament and other EU institutions. There were several political science presentations as would be expected, such as nomination procedures and legislative career paths. One lecture, however, caught all of the students’ attention: a “Comparative Analysis of Twitter Early Adoption in the United States Congress and the European Parliament” presented by Lena Surzhko-Harned from Mercyhurst University.
The growing influence of social media cannot be brushed aside. There are approximately a billion Facebook users and 500 million Twitter users. The stock market plummeted in April when the Associated Press’ Twitter account was hacked and a fake message about President Obama being injured by a bombing at the White House was posted. Clearly, the power of social media can be used in positive and negative fashions.
The lecture compared the first 30% of legislators/parliamentarians in both the 111th Congress and the current European Parliament to adopt Twitter. Many interesting statistics were presented, but the main point is that MEPs tweet significantly more than Congressmen, yet Congressmen have many more followers. It makes sense that Congressmen have more followers because they have more power than MEPs, are more well-known, and Congress has a longer institutional history than the European Parliament. It is less obvious why MEPs tweet so much more than Congressmen, but it could be related to the number of followers. MEPs need to work harder to attract followers and prove that they are worthy of a “follow” from Twitter users, while Congressmen do not need to put as much effort forth to get followers due to their higher status in the eyes of the public.
I will say that from my personal experience, you are missing out if you are not following MEPs on Twitter. They say witty, random, and eurosceptic things frequently. Here are a few examples:
And one bonus example from a European official that you will recognize, with a tweet about his pet:
The major issue with this study, as the speaker noted, is that it did not involve any context analysis. The real question is what are MEPs saying on Twitter? It seems like MEPs could discuss local, national, supranational, or world politics to reach different audiences and constituents. You may be able to state an opinion within Twitter’s 140 character limit, but it is difficult to provide evidence and an explanation for your opinion. All politicians can also use social media to self-promote and show a fun side of themselves to the public, like some of my examples above are clearly trying to do.
My theory about MEPs on Twitter is that they spur interest in the EU for Europe’s younger generation. Not many high school students are willing to read the Financial Times to learn about the EU’s current activities, but they spend hours on Facebook and Twitter, so politicians can reach young people best on social media. A funny tweet using a popular hashtag can draw young people towards an EU official’s page, and from there, more EU-heavy content can be posted. It may not even be crucial that young people follow or interact with their MEP on Twitter, as long as the young people at least recognize that MEPs are active on social media. Those young people will remember to check Twitter later when they become more interested in the EU or politics.
Mike Nelson is a second year MAEUS student. He graduated a year early and received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012. Mike has studied French, German, and Spanish and will be tackling Swedish starting this fall. He has traveled to Germany and hosted a French foreign exchange student. During the summer, he works as a manager at a water park. He is working as a Graduate Assistant and Teaching Assistant for the European Union Center this year.