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Science

Techno-skeptic parliamentarians trained to use Twitter, Facebook

A young French Member of the European Parliament is leading the charge. Advocates hope that the increased use of social networking will get younger Europeans interested in what happens in Brussels.

Damien Abad

Damien Abad, an MEP from France, loves Twitter

Public apathy is always a big problem for communicators in European Union institutions. Fewer than half of eligible voters turned out for EP elections in 2009, continuing a decline that started 30 years ago. But there's a new breed of European politicians who are tackling the problem of a public disconnect one keystroke at a time.

One of them is Damien Abad, a 30-year-old Member of the European Parliament, or MEP.

The man from southeastern France says it's time EU politicians stop just lamenting the lack of interest from constituents and do something about it.

Facebook graphic, screenshot

European Members of Parliament are slowly learning how to use Facebook

So, his idea is to teach his fellow MEPs what has come all too naturally for people of his generation -- using social networking sites like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter as a way to share a personal and informal view of the otherwise obscure European institutions.

"In order for European people to love Europe they have to know Europe!" Abad explains.

And in order for European parliamentarians to Tweet, they have to know Twitter.

So Abad, who already communicates regularly in 140-character messages, set up a series of educational seminars for his fellow parliamentarians and their staffs to show how and why to use the new social technologies.

He thinks it will catch on, but acknowledges, "it's necessary for us to find the most active MEPs in order to create a buzz."

Most MEPs have never heard of Twitter

Jerzy Buzek

Jerzy Buzek calls social networking an "opportunity we need to seize."

But Abad's got an uphill climb. Only about third to a half of members have a Twitter account. A survey a year ago showed that 62 percent of parliamentarians had never even heard of Twitter or had never used it and didn't intend to.

Jerzy Buzek, the parliamentary president and Polish represntative has set a good example, opening his own Twitter account at the beginning of this year.

At age 60, Buzek proves it's not just a technology for the young gadget-crazy crowd. He warmly addressed the first social-media training session, encouraging participation.

"Web 2.0 constitutes for us politicians an opportunity we need to seize," he said in a pre-recorded video message, shown at one of the workshops held earlier this month in Brussels.

"With Facebook, Twitter and other 2.0 tools, we can get reach out to our citizens on a daily, almost personal basis. I see it every day through my Facebook and Twitter accounts."

The keynote lecturer at that same workshop day was Vincent Ducrey, a well-known online consultant, who advises the French government on its social media policies and has written a book called the "Guide of Influence."

Ducrey has worked out meticulous models of the 24-hour news cycle and precisely how to use it for maximum messaging effect.

He said technophobe MEPs should just get over it, for everybody's sake, not least their own.

"It's not about a special party, it's about democracy," Ducrey insists. "If we want a high level of participation a high level of voters in three years, they need to start to interact, to raise the question of Europe as soon as possible. And Twitter is a good way to do it."

Twitter graphic

62 percent of MEPs have never heard of Twitter

Connecting person-to-person

Ducrey says politicians should learn to be tactical but also personable, and should never have an assistant writing their tweets.

One of the believers who's urging her colleagues to hop on board is Marietje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who says she wouldn't be in Brussels at all if it weren't for social media.

She says with a miniscule campaign budget in 2009, virtually all the outreach in her campaign was, well, virtual.

"Obviously you have an idea," she said. "People believe in the idea and in you as a person but to reach them and to interact with them and to make sure they know about you, it could only happen through the Internet."

There are others who've been on the same wavelength, so to speak, for some time.

European Parliament

Member of the European Parliament are generally skeptical of social networking

EuropaTweets was a service formed during the 2009 parliamentary elections to distribute information regarding the vote. It has continued and expanded with its partners into a new service called "Tweet Your MEP" in September.

The principle here, said Belgian co-creator Henri Lastenouse, is to provoke conversation, for voters to feel their elected representatives are accountable to them and for the whole world to see if they are not, by looking at the public Twitter accounts.

Lastenouse predicts public officials will increasingly be forced to take this platform seriously. They'll also have to adjust to not being in complete control of what happens, Lastenouse says, as they are when they just maintain a website and post items to it.

Lastenouse says he's looking forward to the day when the European commissioners are also pressed into keeping Twitter accounts and citizens will be able to ask questions directly to, for example, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

"With social media, it's open and that's a problem because they will have to answer the questions," he warned.

Author: Teri Schultz, Brussels
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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