January 5, 2009
I was discussing online communities and the EU with some friends before Christmas, when a few interlinked thoughts and ideas popped up, stemming from an earlier post about “trust2“. I thought I’d commit them to screen while they were fresh in my mind, and ask for some ideas.
Trust and (election) turnout
Given that election turnout is – among other things – proportional to the (perceived) relevance of the elections and the degree of trust that the elector feels in the institution, a lot of people are looking to the turnout at this year’s EP elections as an indication of how people trust that the EU is worth going to a polling booth for – that it’s both relevant and responsive enough to be worth the effort. The size of the Eurosceptic vote, particularly given the recent launch of the pan-EU Libertas group, will also be a keenly awaited indicator.
So far, so obvious. The point is that turnout has been dropping steadily, and low turnouts indicate a lack of trust. And once trust has been lost, no amount of brochureware will bring it back, simply because nothing said by the distrusted institution will be believed. In such circumstances, as set out earlier, top-down communications just won’t be enough.
Which brought us to bottom-up – or at least decentralised – communications, and the role online communities could play in them.
Online Communities and Language Barriers
Everyone is interested in something. And the rise of web2 means that there’s an online community for every interest. Moreover, recent research shows that with the rise of online communities, people trust ‘people like me‘ more than anyone else (see previous post again). And online communities bring ‘people like me’ together, wherever we are.
As commentators as diverse as EurActiv.com and eurosceptics point out, the ‘European public space’ hardly exists – there are national spaces, within which EU affairs can be discussed to varying degrees, but almost always from a purely national perspective. Just look at the issues on which the Irish voted No.
There are also sectoral spaces within the national, which could provide a good platform for an informed EU debate on the sector of interest.
The Internet adds a new dimension to this sort of space. While they still focus on sectoral issues, online communities are no longer limited to one country. ‘Community’ is no longer limited by geography (the people in your village), because online communities bring together people concerned with an issue, wherever they are.
Within Europe, however, these communities are limited by language, although plenty of non-English speakers contribute to mainly English-speaking communities to improve their readership (cf. number of non-EN bloggers blogging in English on Blogactiv.eu). While language barriers do not map exactly to national frontiers, they nevertheless limit the emergence of online debates about the EU and its policies, open to all Europeans. Moreover, there is a dearth of decent, apolitical material which could underpin such a debate.
Bridging Online Communities in the EU
But such debates could be pretty useful, so let’s make an assumption: sectorally-focused online communities across Europe would welcome support in overcoming language barriers to connect to similar communities in other EU countries.
If this is true, it presents an interesting opportunity for a new approach to EU communications. By helping bridge the language gap between different online communities in the same area of interest, the EU would support cross-EU exchanges of best practices, ideas and knowledge, as well as support a debate on EU policy in the sector of interest.
This alone would demonstrate EU added value, but it would also allow the EU to explain the logic of EU added value in the communities’ area of interest. I’m not talking about propaganda or brochureware here. For an EU policy or programme to be approved – at least, in theory – it has to be underpinned by a logic of subsidiarity. In other words, there needs to be a logic underpinning the policy or programme that ensures that the EU will add value by adopting it.
That logic is rarely explained clearly to the wider public, but when it is, at least in my experience (EU research activities, mainly), most people see it pretty easily. This case needs to be stated clearly, without propaganda.
For such a strategy to work, EUROPA must therefore first clearly explain EU Added Value to non-specialists in their areas of interest, preferably in their language. Without such a ‘bedrock’ document to refer to, any online discussions will be ill-informed, and hence rather useless.
Given that (and it’s a big given), following this strategy would mean that the EU would:
- go to where the people are, rather than expect them to come to the EU.
- help connect online communities in an area across language barriers, supporting useful information exchanges between people in 27 countries
- simultaneously explain and demonstrate the EU’s relevance and added value, to people in the areas they care about.
This is therefore a long way away from brochureware/propaganda websites, and of ‘quick win’, press-friendly stories which do nothing to explain why the EU is active in areas as diverse as research, healthcare and agriculture.
Implementation of such a strategy could be fraught. Done clumsily (or worse, secretively), it would blow up in the EU’s face – just take a look at how suspicious some online communities can be.
So what principles would such an initiative have to follow? What traps would have to be avoided? More practically, how would the language bridging work? Any examples out there already?Mathew Lowry