With three months still to go, people are already talking about the European elections on social media. But will social media actually make a difference? And, perhaps more importantly, can we get beyond speculation and measure the impact of social media on the 2014 European elections?
In this post, I’m going to take a brief look at three areas where I think social media could potentially have a quantifiable impact.
Social media and voter turnout
During the 2010 US congressional elections, a research team led by the University of California in San Diego studied the voting behaviour of 61 million Facebook users. The researchers looked at the impact of a “get out the vote” message delivered to voters via Facebook, as well as an “I voted” button that allowed people to inform their Facebook friends that they had cast their vote. The study concluded that the Facebook campaign generated 340,000 additional votes nationwide. Interestingly, it found that people’s behaviour was influenced not just by their friends, but also by friends of their friends. (See further information about the study on the UCSD website.)
It’s not currently clear whether Facebook will be used in a similar way to get out the vote during this year’s European elections. If it is, evidence from the UCSD study suggests that it could potentially have a quantifiable effect on voter turnout.
Social media and preferential voting
Two academics from Radboud University Nijmegen (Niels Spierings and Kristof Jacobs) looked at the impact of social media on preferential voting in the 2010 Dutch elections. They built a unique dataset on the 493 candidates from the ten parties that received at least one seat in the Dutch parliament.
Spierings and Jacobs found that social media use (Twitter and the now-defunct Dutch social network Hyves) had a “marginal but significant” impact on the number of preferential votes received by candidates. Every 1000 Twitter followers yielded around 190 extra votes, whereas every 1000 followers on Hyves seemed to yield a bonus of 1,343 votes. Interestingly, the study found that “when candidates use social media more [actively], the effect of the number of followers on the number of preferential votes increases (and becomes significant)”. Each tweet during the campaign was found to add another 11 extra votes per 1000 followers.
It would be possible to use the method developed by Spierings and Jacobs to analyse the impact of social media use by EP election candidates in countries that use a preferential voting system (see map).
Social media and the online public sphere
Past European elections have been described as “second-order” inter alia because traditional media have provided limited opportunities to frame the issues in a European context and to engage a wide audience in a genuine pan-European debate.
Will social media help to fill that gap during the 2014 European elections?
Analyzing the conversation on Twitter, in particular, could help us to answer that question, as well as assessing the level of development of the European online public sphere more generally. Some of the interesting issues to watch during the next three months will include the following:
- What will be the overall volume of activity and how will this evolve as we approach the election date? (As Ron Patz has pointed out, the scale of the conversation during the last week has been dwarfed both by events in Ukraine and the Sochi Winter Olympics).
- How will this compare with the social media buzz around national elections?
- Will the #EP2014 hashtag be adopted sufficiently widely to capture the conversation on Twitter around the European elections?
- What will be the balance between different categories of actors (EU institutions, MEPs and candidates, journalists, analysts, activists, individual voters …)?
- What will be the geographical breakdown of the conversation on social media? (Mainly “Brussels bubble”, or will it reach beyond to engage broader national and regional audiences?)
- How will Twitter and other social media be used in conjunction with the planned live TV debate between candidates for the presidency of the European Commission on 14 May?
- To what extent will the conversation transcend national and language barriers?