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Democracy, Twiplomacy and Accountability in Europe
There is a clear link between the speed and clarity of communications on the one hand and authority and accountability on the other. Before the introduction of mass communications (particularly through the internet), governments communicated in slower, less interactive ways. Political systems have often developed over hundreds of years and changes such as social media are not even ten years old. Many rules and habits of government have become outdated and government’s have failed to exploit new possibilities which could make democratic politics more transparent, intelligent and legitimate.
In order to have some empirical backing for these thoughts, I created the most complete list of MEPs in Twitter I’m aware of. I had a look at which Members have joined the platform and how they are using it. Based on this data, observers may notice that although most Parliamentarians have entered the realm of social media, only a handful have embraced the new communication possibilities.
Whilst the chart above shows that MEPs were in general slow to adopt Twitter, we now have a 60% majority (456 out of 766) using the service to some degree, with more coming onboard every year. Clearly, MEPs believe this form of communication holds merit, but who was there first and who has just joined? And what does this tell us?
If we look at the early adopters, as detailed above, we see that those MEPs who joined in 2007/8 came only from EU15 member states, with 10 of these from Germany (the EU’s most populous state). Greens, S&Ds and Liberals were also notable among that group. Late adopters form a broader representation of the EU’s countries and parties. Despite this broad base, the lingua franca for tweeting MEPs is English, with both French and English over represented as a proportion of EU population:
*(Nb. this indicator is not 100% accurate and there is a risk for Germanic languages being confused with English.)
Communicating for a purpose?
But how does this lead to a model of accountability? The following is a visualization of the most frequently discussed people/subjects in a sample of 461 recent tweets by MEPs:
We can see that on this sample Marietje Schaake and Antonyia Parvanova are the most active/discussed MEPs, and that Turkey and transatlantic issues were the most popular discussions. Unfortunately the language differences among MEPs make it harder to identify discussion trends than when one looks at legislators who speak the same language.
A clearer but less visual insight is the top 10 most active MEPs, who are:
But does tweeting frequently mean that an MEP is making good use of Twitter? Two simple indicators to measure accountability and quality of tweets is how often legislators ask questions to their followers/constituents, and what proportion of their tweets are replies to other users.
Why are questions important?
An elected official is there to serve a population, and even if he or she has a mandate to represent and vote on behalf of the people who elected him/her, touching base with the electorate is a sign of closeness and accountability. For the sample of 461 recent tweets used for the chart above, 450 were tweets sharing statements, and only 11 were serious questions directed to followers and constituents in general. These questions were by Marietje Schaake and Tarja Cronberg on Turkey, Marita Ulvskog on water, David Martin on EU/Switzerland taxation issues, Doris Pack on youth voting, Roger Helmer on leaving the EU, Lambert van Nistelrooij on agriculture and open innovation, and Morten Messerschmidt on urban policy.
Looking at another sample of 512 recent tweets, we find that more than 84% of tweets by MEPs are one-way sentences, 9% contain media, and only 7% (38 tweets) are replies to other Twitter users. Considering the amount of daily mentions each MEP must receive on a daily basis, 38 replies does not reflect very highly on the accessibility of elected representatives. Furthermore, the abundance of one-way statements could indicate a lack of listening, which in turn means that MEPs are missing out on very valuable knowledge about citizens’ views (knowledge that could help improve their performance and that is often paid for very expensively via traditional pollsters).
Driving towards accountability
So far we have focused on the communications opportunities at the disposal of elected representatives today. However, some critics might rightly point out that the social media arena is not a legitimate field for the exercise of the democratic process. These valid observations could be countered if we as a society foster social media spaces that are:
a) Inclusive: Everyone is allowed and encouraged to have a say;
b) Transparent and fair: Information is not hidden from users (think of possible conflicts of interest because of Saudi royalty owning a stake in Twitter or Facebook shareholders’ interests, arbitrary selection of trending topics, etc.) The identity of users should be verifiable and trusted.
c) Empowering: Politicians ask questions to constituents, the answers are public and have an impact on legislator’s decisions.
What do you think? I’m happy to hear your thoughts through twitter (@lebonnom) or in the comments section below!