Politicians are regularly accused of being distant, of taking no interest in the opinions of their voters. And certainly the representatives in the European Parliament have a limited scope of engagement - each of the 99 German MEPs represents an average of 828,000 citizens. Making contact with them seems to be a bit of a long-shot at first glance.
But it is possible. With the help of social media, politicians can speedily disseminate information tailor-made for their users, and can potentially reach more than half of their constituents - according to a study from the German IT association Bitkom, over 60 percent of Germans keep up with politics via the Internet.
Learning to lesson
"Even between the elections we can show how to participate in European politics," said Julia Reda of the Pirate Party. "We have put the political issues from Brussels on a slick website, and worked through questions asked on there. Then we promoted that through social media. We'll do something similar in the European election campaign."
Reda is aiming to make the step up to MEP herself in the election on May 25, and her young party has a clear advantage in the matter: on average, Pirate politicians are significantly younger than their counterparts in other parties in the European Parliament, and according to her, the Pirates and the EU are a perfect match: "We show that the values that we have learnt from the Internet - cooperation, interconnectedness, and overcoming boundaries - are all values that define the EU."
The Pirates use their websites to discuss current EU issues, promote online petitions, send questions to the parliament and shoot short YouTube clips about the daily work of the MEPs - and it's all promoted on social media.
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Reda uses social networks to bring European politics closer to the people. One thing she has noticed is that parliamentarians have to actively make an effort to present and make themselves available on the Internet. She says that while most MEPs are not used to being contacted directly by voters, she takes personal care of her own social media presence.
"I'm not sure that Julia Reda is really interested in dialogue," counters Martin Fuchs, a Hamburg-based election analyst. "She still uses the pseudonym @Senficon on Twitter." This, he says, means that she is not easily searchable. Fuchs advises companies, public institutions, and politicians on their social media activity, and says that making political work more transparent is an important step to bringing people closer to Europe's structures.
Social media culture
Manfred Weber has been an MEP for some time, representing the conservative European People's Party (EPP), and he too has discovered the use of social media for his work - and has become the most active social media user among conservatives. Thanks to the social media tool Pluragraph, it's now possible to analyze the activities of individual MEPs, and Weber is the sixth-biggest Facebook user among the 99 German MEPs, and the 23rd most prolific Tweeter. He finds that social networks offer him one vital tool: speed. "The users who I'm connected with on the network expect to be informed of political developments more quickly. Then they always want to tell me what they think."
But is that the right approach? "Manfred Weber doesn't have a strategy on using social media," Fuchs told DW. Simply sending out press releases and statements following decisions and debates is wrong. "It shows that he has understood the technology, but not the culture behind social media."
Social networks, says Fuchs, are based on dialogue, and users expect a politician to be open for interaction. "The user's opinion is the main thing - politicians have to learn to listen," he says.
A brief perusal of MEPs' Facebook pages shows there is little such dialogue going on - it is mainly made up of posts by the representatives, and they often fail to indicate on their homepages that they are even present on social networks.
Fuchs is familiar with the problem - of course politicians don't want any critical content on their sites - but that, too, is wrong, he says. "If they use social media, politicians also have to take the time to engage in dialogue. They have to react to criticism and take it seriously. Criticism shows that there are people who are interested in me and my opinions."
But interaction has to happen in the first place - if it doesn't, Facebook will decide that the posts are boring. The result: the posts are no longer shown to the Facebook fans, "because it's a classic one-too-many message," says Fuchs.
Despite the expert criticism, Weber has no intention of altering his social media method - he's convinced that his strategy works. "People are interested in my Facebook account because they're interested in Manfred Weber's political work," he said. "It's important for me that it's about the content that is being communicated. It is successful."