The EU does not have the match of national media of its own and has very limited traditional tools of direct interaction with the citizens of the 28 member states. In the age of mass broadcast and print media that was a huge disadvantage. In the age of new media and digital democracy this might turn into an opportunity.
Around the turn of the century when virtually everyone, at least in the developed world, was already “connected” traditional media started rapidly losing clout and income as both readers and advertisers “migrated” online for a faster, interactive and more diverse information environment.
Ever since newspapers have been struggling, with many of them either becoming extinct or turning into newsprint extras to their web-sites.
TV stations have suffered heavily from the free availability of news and entertainment video content online and Radio is more and more confined to the lazier alternative of listening to your own music while driving to work.
With a few years delay, the same decline in status befell upon traditional political parties in Europe – and for the same reasons exactly.
Traditional media were initially unable to react to the interactive requirements of their connected audiences just as much as traditional parties were unable to react to the expectations of citizens. People declined to be treated as voters and taxpayers any longer and wanted to be, well, decision-makers themselves.
The mass invasion of social media, which is yet to celebrate its tenth anniversary, put an end to the traditional European societies, where public opinion was the result of a complicated debate among citizens with different views moderated (many would say manipulated) by the political establishment and the mainstream media.
Social media made that debate impossible as people befriended, “liked” and “followed” only the like-minded and completely ignored everyone else, with painful political ramifications. The traditional political parties of Europe could no longer bet on leadership and consensus-building: the “new media” environment does not tolerate consensus and is virtually leaderless.
It’s very tempting to claim that digital media and social disintegration have helped populists and fringe radicals become the heroes of the day, but that would be missing the point by miles.
The ever-growing speed of connectivity online has only highlighted the decay of social connectivity “off-line” and the obsolete mechanisms of traditional political decision making and has led to the rapid growth of interactive political tools named with a variety of buzzwords like eParticipation, Digital Democracy, Crowdsource Legislation and the like.
Citizens have started shaping policies directly in cities across Europe, with France, Estonia, Finland and Iceland leading the way from various forms of on-line consultations with citizens to actual co-legislating and interactive policy implementation. UK’s legislature is the latest in discussing a strategy to make Parliament “fully interactive and digital” by 2020.
The case with the European Union is quite different. It’s pointless to argue how far the EU-wide equivalent of “public opinion” has developed; European Citizenship rests widely on the irresponsibly challenged right of free movement; and the European Parliament, the only EU body directly elected by EU citizens is so far failing in its efforts to increase voter interest and turnout.
In addition, the EU does not have the match of national media of its own and has very limited traditional tools of direct interaction with the citizens of the 28 member states.
In the age of mass broadcast and print media that was a huge disadvantage. In the age of new media and digital democracy this might turn into an opportunity.
The poor links between the EU institutions and the European citizens have been at the core of the debate about its democratic credentials. Now that the tools to boost connectivity are at hand, the EU doesn’t need national governments or media to spread its message and can communicate with the EU citizens directly.
The biggest challenge here is not to limit this communication to social media marketing, on-line consultations or participation in drafting policy.
Much like on the national level, citizens are not interested in debating unless they can feel the impact they’ve made on issues they care about.
Technology and communication will not solve any of the functional problems of the EU and Digital Democracy should not be seen as the “ultimate driving machine” of European success, but actively engaging citizens in decision making might well be the driver of much needed European reforms.