Low engagement of citizens in politics and ever declining voter turnout are taken as evidence of a democratic deficit in the European Union. By providing a new form of communication among politicians and citizens, social media may provide a way of increasing citizen involvement in political life, especially during election campaigns.
Social media allow political actors, particularly smaller parties or less well-known candidates, to bypass mass-media filters. They can influence journalists who follow social media for story ideas. Whilst specific targeting of voters, which has proven effective elsewhere, may be problematic in much of the EU, messages can at least be targeted at the young, the largest group of social media users. They can be used to organise or reinforce participation in ‘offline’ events, and can increase the personal appeal of a candidate. The network effects of social media, amplifying as they do the transmission of a political message through social connections, make social media a valuable part of an election campaign.
While social media is increasingly used in campaigns across Europe, the ultimate effect of this usage remains unclear. Some attribute the increasing levels of political activity on the internet to citizens who are already politically committed. It may be that social media have only a very limited effect on getting otherwise disengaged citizens to engage – even just to go out to vote. It will take time, and more elections such as the forthcoming May 2014 European Parliament election, to evaluate the true role that social media will come to play.