THE BLOG
11/13/2013 06:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Will It Be the EU That Finally Gives Us a Social Media Election

One of the more enduring assumptions of political campaigning in recent times has been the idea that digital media 'won' the Presidency for Barack Obama in 2008. That it was the geeks wot won it.

From then on, there has been plenty of digital real estate laid waste to give room to commentary on the theme of 'when will we catch up on this modernism on this side of the Atlantic?'. The upshot tends to be that we look to the wilting digital presences of our political leaders, and despair.

Yet, the digital Obama breakthough was not about digital media and communications. It owed more to Tesco than to Zuckerberg.

It was Big Data that gave Obama the extra momentum. Even that wasn't new - Big Data, in this case, was nothing more significant that customer relationship management on a large scale. A hefty database, with lots of information about the supporters - use that database to contact those supporters. Squeeze money and votes out of them. Game over.

It's the game that Tesco having been playing for years, selling you two-for-one on your Weetabix, rather than your healthcare, but its the same principle.

But many politicians have conflated that with the other significant digital trend of that period - the emergence of social media. Data. Social. It's all digital, isn't it? So rather than have a database the size of Gibraltar, get a Twitter account. Same difference.

So politicians hop onto the platform and tweet their opinions at people, and assume it'll help them get elected. The social network fairy will sort it out. It's like saying that owning a Manchester United shirt turns you into a Champions League player.

It's not a bad thing that politicians head to social media - any increase in the connections between the electorate and its politicians has to be a good thing. But, if you'll forgive the cliche, too few realise that it's a conversation not a platform, seemingly regarding it as a place to announce their latest grip'n'grin and reassure people about whatever it is they need reassuring about today. Plenty of noise, not much listening.

There are glorious exceptions to the rule, of course, politicians who are adept, open, and engaging, in all senses of the word, on social media. Yet for platforms that are open, free and have enormous audiences, it seems that the opportunity for debate, for greater mutual understanding and for the influencing of policy is badly underused.

So the wonks waiting for a digital breakthrough look now to the next big test - the EU elections in May next year (and the prospects for a digital election will be discussed in London on the 25th).

Europe's politicians have colonised the key digital spaces - the EP Newshub, created by the EU Parliament, shows plenty of activity on Twitter and Facebook and nearly 400 of the MEPs are on Twitter and a similarly significant number are on Facebook. And, as you'd expect from the challengers, most are already on Twitter.

Some, indeed, go further than the broadcast model: notably, the contest between the race between Sophie in 't Veld and Marietje Schaake to lead the Dutch Democrats 66 list for the elections was a decent example of genuine political campaigning, if within a rather strict and pre-determined electorate of party members.

Elsewhere, the European Greens look to organise an online election to select the party's two leading candidates, trying to energise support with social media. Earnest, but an internal process, as you'd expect.

Energy, indeed, would be the first achievement of social media in European elections. For a continent with hundreds of years of conflict behind it, the EU is ambivalent about its democracy and pan-European digital enthusiasm, across borders and in multiple language, is difficult to envisage. Most MEPs, indeed most politicians, take a risk aversion strategy, rather than try to broaden their reach, speak to new audiences or use their mobiles and laptops to socialise policy and even crowd-source ideas. Being on the platforms and ticking those social boxes is good, if you don't say something stupid. Yet 'don't say something stupid' is a policy only applied to social media, it seems.

Risk aversion is the choice of incumbents. Not inviting others into the conversation is what signed-up members of the establishment do. Somewhere in Europe, there's a candidate who will propel him/herself forward with wit and originality, who will use social media to take chances, have conversations and take their politics into new places.

Anyone know where that person is?