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The role played by social media in political participation and electoral campaigns

Written by Susanna Tenhunen and Vilma Karvelyte
Updated on 22 January 2015
© Ronda / Fotolia

© Ronda / Fotolia

Social Media has rapidly grown in importance as a forum for political activism in its different forms. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube provide new ways to stimulate citizen engagement in political life, where elections and electoral campaigns have a central role.

Personal communication via social media brings politicians and parties closer to their potential voters. It allows politicians to communicate faster and reach citizens in a more targeted manner and vice versa, without the intermediate role of mass media. Reactions, feedback, conversations and debates are generated online as well as support and participation for offline events. Messages posted to personal networks are multiplied when shared, which allow new audiences to be reached.

Although the presence of social media is spreading and media use patterns are changing, online political engagement is largely restricted to people already active in politics and on the Internet. Other audiences are less responsive. For example, television news together with print and online newspapers are still the most important sources of political information in most EU Member States.

Social media has reshaped structures and methods of contemporary political communication by influencing the way politicians interact with citizens and each other. However, the role of this phenomenon in increasing political engagement and electoral participation is neither clear nor simple.


12 papers on social media and political participation / seminar organised by La Pietra Dialogues LPD, New York University at Florence. Villa La Pietra, May 10-11 2013.
This website includes twelve papers on social media and political participation presented at a seminar in Florence organised by New York University (La Pietra Dialogues) in May 2013. This seminar covers themes such as democracy and the internet, use of social media in political campaigns, power to mobilise collective actions and mass protests. Presentations study both the US and the European experiences. They give a comprehensive overview of the impact of the changing media landscape to patterns of political participation and the impact of social media in political campaigns.


Social media and political participation

Youth Participation in Democratic Life / London School of Economics, EACEA 2010/03, 2013, 234 p.
This is a thorough study on young peoples’ motivation and readiness to participate politically. The study covers youth (13-30 years old) in Europe. It is divided into six themes, including one on young people and electoral participation.

Women in decision-making the role of the new media for increased political participation / European Parliament Policy Department C, study, PE 493.010, 2013, 122 p.
This study examines through case studies how social media could increase female participation in political discussion. It explores barriers hindering women’s willingness to get engaged in politics. Case studies highlight standards and best practices in the use of new media, with a focus on European political groups, national parties and individual MEPs. Opportunities, weaknesses, strengths and risks of new media in political communication are presented.

Democracy in transition: political participation in the European Union / Dēmētriou, Kyriakos N., Heidelberg: Springer, 2012, EP Library – Brussels
This book analyses the reasons behind citizens’ apathy towards traditional forms of political participation and civic activity in Europe. It sheds light on informal and unconventional ways of political engagement facilitated by technology, notably the internet and social networking. With a combination of theoretical and empirical evidence, this collection of texts examines different factors influencing the concept of citizenship and forms of political participation.

Social media and democracy innovations in participatory politics / Loader Brian, Mercea Dan, London: Routledge, 2012, 275 p.
This ebook, available on the EP intranet, provides analysis on the prominent phenomenon of social media and its impact on civic engagement in various forms. Using evidence-based research, a range of international scholars examine the impact of social media on political communication. Well known cases such as the Obama Presidential campaign, the Arab spring uprisings and UK Uncut demonstrations are presented and analysed.

New models for electoral campaigns: focus on the EU Member States

New political actors in Europe: Beppe Grillo and the M5S / Jamie Bartlett, Mark Littler, Duncan McDonnell, Caterina Froio; DEMOS; 2013, 70 p.
The M5S Movement in Italy has evolved rapidly to become a significant political player by using social media to engage like-minded people in virtual and real life political action. This study examines the phenomenon of Beppe Grillo and M5S by studying Beppe Grillo’s Facebook followers. In addition, it looks more broadly at the relationship between politics and new forms of communication provided by various social media platforms.

Party Change, Social Media and the Rise of ‘Citizen-initiated’ Campaigning / Rachel K. Gibson, Party Politics, 2013, 16 p.
The impact of the internet on election campaigning is at the core of this article. By examining the 2010 general election in the UK, the author analyses new ways of building an online campaign and the trend of personalisation in politics. The possibility to communicate directly with voters via social media is groundbreaking and essential for the development of citizens-initiated campaigning.

Virtually Members: The Facebook and Twitter Followers of UK Political Parties / Jamie Bartlett, Sid Bennet, Rutger Birnie and Simon Wibberley; A CASM Briefing Paper; April 2013 DEMOS
This study examines Facebook and Twitter followers of the main UK political parties. Transformation of political communication is analysed by mapping similarities and differences in online communication strategies between the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. The study describes and examines a new concept of virtual political support. Compared to social media, more traditional forms of political communication seem to lack appeal, especially among young people. According to this study, social media is used increasingly to get people involved in political activities and keep them engaged.

iPolitics : citizens, elections, and governing in the new media era / Richard Logan Fox, Jennifer Ramos, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 303 p.
New media, namely Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, facilitate participatory civic engagement in various ways. This collection of essays provides an insight into this changing media landscape and its effect on politics. The book is divided into three sections: Shifting Media Universe and New Consumers, Campaigns and Elections in the New Media Environment, and Civic Mobilization and Governance in the New Information Age. The main focus is on the US, but some countries in Europe and beyond are also covered.

Electoral Campaigns and Online Communication Strategies of MEPs

Strengthening European Democracy: Citizens’ Participation. Which challenges do we face at the European Elections of 2014? / Joseph H. H. Weiler (note 1), Claes H. de Vreese (note 2), European Parliament Policy Department C, PE 493.036, 2013, 38 p.
This publication includes two notes. The first focuses on the 2014 European Elections, which, for the first time, gave voters the opportunity to influence the choice of the next President of the European Commission. Professor Joseph H. H. Weiler examines the prospects and risks related to this procedure. The second note focuses on citizens’ participation in voting. The evolution of media communication and its relation with politics is illustrated by the presentation of various studies on the media coverage of previous European elections and the factors influencing media attention and voter turnout are identified. Professor Claes H. de Vreese also provides an analytical overview of new forms of political participation on the internet i.e. social media.

Members of the European Parliament Online: The Use of Social Media in Political Marketing / Lucia Vesnic-Alujevic, Centre for European Studies (CES), 2013, 42 p.
This study explores the use of social media in political marketing with a focus on Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). It examines how the increasing use of the internet is reflected in political communication strategies. It touches on possible reasons for the disengagement of citizens in politics and the low level of voting turnout in European Elections. The author also studies attitudes towards the use of social media and views on its importance for European politics today. To conclude, it presents suggestions on how social media tools could be used in EU-level political campaigns.

Online Political Communication Strategies: MEPs, E-Representation, and Self-Representation / Darren G. Lillekerab, Karolina Koc-Michalskac, Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2013, 19 p.
This comparative view, covering 27 Member States, offers an analysis of different styles of online communication strategies used by MEPs. Strategies are grouped in three categories: homestyle, impression management, and participatory.

Online social networks and micro-blogging in political campaigning / Maurice Vergeer; Liesbeth Hermans, Steven Sams, Party Politics 2011, 26 p.
This article on political communication strategies focuses on micro-blogging, namely Twitter, and social networking. It studies candidates who campaigned in the European Elections and reveals differences between candidates from different political groups. In addition, it highlights variations in communication strategies and activity in, during and between election campaigns. At the time of this study, Twitter was at an early development stage.

2009 European Parliamentary Elections on the Web. A mediatization perspective / Michailidou, Asimina; Trenz, Hans-Jörg; Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo (ARENA), 2010, 21 p.
Media is the primary intermediary in between politics and citizens. In this article, on-line debates in twelve member-states held during the 2009 European elections are studied using several indicators, such as publicity, inclusion, and degree of contention.

Politicians Online! MEP Communication Strategies in the Internet Era / Braghiroli, Stefano; European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), 2010, 16 p.
This paper examines internet communication strategies used by MEPs in the 6th legislature by analysing their individual websites. Both quantitative and qualitative methods are applied to analyse communication between MEPs and citizens.

Public opinion and statistics

Europeans’ Engagement in Participatory Democracy / Flash Eurobarometer 373, Report, March 2013, 63 p. Summary

European Youth: participation in democratic life / Flash Eurobarometer 375, Report, May 2013, 83 p. Summary

Media use in the European Union: report / Standard Eurobarometer 78, European Commission, Autumn 2012, 55 p.

Internet access and use in 2012: More than half of internet users post messages to social media… …and over 60% read news online / Eurostat news release, December 2012

Individuals using the Internet for posting messages to social media sites or instant messaging / Eurostat dataset details


23 thoughts on “The role played by social media in political participation and electoral campaigns

  1. Wow big thanks to the researchers this is helping me out with my degree research project however I’d like to receive something on the effects of the social media on individual voting action. Any article that covers these will be very appreciated. Thanks

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