With campaign preparations well underway for the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections, the question of how to approach social media is on the minds of political strategists across the continent.
To help us forecast the digital and social trends that will shape the next year, C&E Europe’s Sebastián Rodríguez sat down with Marco Ricorda, a leading European communications and social media expert who currently serves as Social Media Manager for Antonio Tajani, the President of the European Parliament. Ricorda has previously worked for the ALDE Group & MEP Guy Verhofstadt, as well as the European Commission and Bruegel, the Brussels-based think tank.
C&E Europe: How are social media platforms being used in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in 2019—as a channel for dialogue or just as the place to spend a lot of money on digital ads?
Ricorda: I think the run-up hasn’t started yet. An election is like the Olympics: you may train for months and years, you might be the best for a long time, you might have made all the right moves, but what matters is the day of the competition. Budgeting for ads is definitely important, with organic reach going down on Facebook, but they are powerless without content tailor-made to the strictest possible audiences.
I think understanding how each platform works (which is a lot more than just posting content) is way more important than throwing money at ads and hoping they somehow spin in the right direction and manage to get content to go viral. Algorithms can be tweaked and they are not just some sort of game. Shareability and virality in political social media have elements that can be identified such as click-bait thumbnails, color codes, and combination, posting time, etc. But most importantly, more than dialogue, I think these elections will be about “who listens the most.” I perceive an almost insurmountable sense of anger, especially in Mediterranean Europe, by citizens who feel they are not being listened to. That’s all they want. Let’s give it to them instead of forcefully trying to win arguments online.
C&E Europe: What are some of the most innovative and effective social media strategies you have seen employed to this point, and who is carrying them out?
Ricorda: That’s a hard question. A common misperception nowadays is to say that a great communication strategy is an election-winning strategy. I find that incorrect, or at least incomplete. The most effective strategy is the one that mobilizes all the people who share your vision of society to vote for you. That vision may not be the most shared in a country, region or city so it might lose an election. This debunks the above-mentioned statement about winning strategies. If I had to choose two campaigns to be inspired by, I would mention Più Europa in Italy for branding: They are using reverse fear to warn about the dangers of losing Europe as we know it in the currently most Eurosceptic country in the European Union. Pretty bold I’d say.
For innovation, I would mention the VVD in the Netherlands who hired some 30 community managers just to respond to comments and direct messages ahead of their latest election, which they won. Talking about listening and engaging, the VVD social media team went all in to provide citizens with a platform to really respond to people’s concerns and that is what I hope will happen ahead of the European elections in May by EU institutions.
C&E Europe: Let's talk about youth voter turnout. Which social media platform is going to make a difference in mobilizing young people for European political campaigns and why?
Ricorda: The biggest enemy in getting youngsters to vote is political apathy. It's important that young voters understand why it benefits them to go the polls. Empty slogans about democracy and duty will not cut it. They were born with all European benefits like peace and the single market, and they now take them for granted. European institutions must be crystal clear about what they gain from being part of the European family. Our future is at stake if they fail to do so.
Technologically, we see a clear shift towards Instagram and Snapchat, and away from Facebook among young people. As a consequence, the reaction for running campaigns targeted to this audience needs to be focused on ephemeral content: content that grabs attention within two seconds and fades away 24 hours later.
I don’t think one specific platform will make a difference in terms of younger voter turnout but a combination of mostly video-platforms propelled by influencers. Virality of content is an equation with many variables of which the most important is exponential multiplication: key re-shares and endorsements by macro influencers outside of politics—singers, actors, and athletes. Also important are social channels with macro or giant followings in the media industry like hyper-followed TV, radio, or Youtube shows.
C&E Europe: Complete this sentence: the next regulatory change to watch out on social media will be ¨_____"
Ricorda: Increased legislation regarding transparency of ads and targeting by media companies. I think Europe is going in the right direction in order to prevent any foreign meddling in electoral campaigns. There needs to be cooperation between institutions and media companies to guarantee that elections are run according to governmental rules and practices. European democracy cannot afford to be overtaken by uncontrollable and unregulated digital forces, which has sadly already happened in a number of elections in the West. The European institutional response has not been cohesive and solid enough so far.
C&E Europe: Hacks, leaks, fake news, misuse of personal data—do you think the next European elections face a growing threat of manipulation?
Ricorda: They certainly do, but I also believe media companies have an interest in preventing this from happening. Hacks, leaks, and false news have been used since the invention of communication so I don't think they are a specific trait of our times. Misuse of personal data is illegal but it is too easy to find loopholes to act semi-legally that damage users, consumers and consequently voters. I think that’s a legislative chapter where all regulatory organisations (national and European) need to be standard bearers of democracy. Europe leads the way with the establishment of the GDPR but there is a clear continuous threat when media and tech companies mix legality with morality. Profit must never prevail over sustainable democracy and transparency.