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Creating a European Identity through Social Media

Knowledge @ ESCP Europe

Andreas M. Kaplan
Professor of Marketing and Communication

As recently noted, the turnout for the European elections was rather low (an average of 43% for the whole of Europe, with the lowest in Slovakia: only 13%). Some of the reasons for this lack of interest certainly reside in the virtual absence of a sense of European identity of the European Union’s 500 million inhabitants, the national discourse that blames the European administration for the current crisis and in recurring accusations about the evils of its bureaucracy. In this context, social networks are indeed able to facilitate the construction of a European identity.

In 2013, several studies and reports analysed the potential of social media in this area, such as the Centre for European Studies, which recommended greater use of it to create links between citizens and European politicians. We should also mention the Ministry for European Integration of Kosovo, which published a guide showing their interest in communication in connection with the European Union. In addition, the research conducted by professors Karantzeni and Gouscos demonstrates the high utility of networks as a means of culturalisation in training and the dissemination of a European identity. It can build self-identification with European values and a shared sense of belonging to the continent.

Social media has two major roles in the formation of national identity and thus European identity:

  • Firstly, it is a potential mass media, considered essential by numerous researchers in the field of communications for the construction of identity due to its symbolic nature and influence on all common aspects of life. In the absence of trans-European traditional media, social networks fulfil this role and enable national media, which is often suspicious of Europe, to be circumvented. Thus, it has the potential to communicate directly with half a billion Europeans.
  • Secondly, Facebook, Twitter and so on are "social" networks and so enable not only interaction between citizens and authorities, but also between citizens of different nationalities (on the assumption the Erasmus generation can overcome language barriers). Social media helps build a community: not only may a Polish person accept a German as an interlocutor of equal value (or vice versa), but these two individuals can also create together a sense of belonging to the same community. Social networks, predestined to create communities, can thus be of great use in this construction of a European "we".

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Europe accounts for a maximum of cultural diversity in a minimum of geographical distance. If one thinks that a lack of common culture and multilingualism constitutes an insurmountable barrier to creating a European identity, this argument quickly loses weight when considering the case of Switzerland, where around eight million citizens coexist harmoniously using four different languages. In addition to the central aspect of communication for the construction and representation of identity, a second important factor is the role of the European political institutions, such as the Commission, the Parliament and the Council, which promote European identity to their citizens. Sophia Kaitatzi-Whitlock showed the strong links between the formation of European identity and the media, with regret that the EU as a political structure lacks effective communications tools for the construction thereof.

When analysing the European Parliament Facebook account, we see that it has attracted over 1.6 million "likes". Its pages give the latest information on European affairs, contain photo albums and refer to other networks, such as its YouTube channel. The videos are mainly in English; ones in other languages being subtitled. On Twitter, however, the Parliament follows rather a divisive strategy by having an account for each of the 24 official languages. The Spanish Twitter account, e.g., has about 41,000 subscribers. At first sight these figures seem decent, but by compared to the number of EU citizens, they are unsatisfactory as they are lower than the 0.3% of Facebook Parliament "likes". The above mentioned study by Karantzeni and Gouscos also indicates that the content of the European social network pages does not seem suited to the needs of its inhabitants. In general, social media EU-managed seems rather distant, technocratic and with little appeal, especially for young Europeans – a priority target who use Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

But what would be the most appropriate content? Unsurprisingly, the answer is increased customisation, a clearer focus and more interaction, thus increasing the "social" part of these networks, thereby creating a European identity. In addition to communicating what the EU has achieved and what the similarities are between member states, one could also show what differentiates Europe from other parts of the world. The purpose of the communication is to highlight the fact that we belong to the same group by showing the differences in common. However, it is important not to give the impression of trying to manipulate readers. Instead of receiving press releases in an unfamiliar format, social media users should feel that the content of these accounts has a direct connection to their everyday lives. This is precisely why they go on social networks: not to get the same information as on The 10 O’clock News.

As a result, social networks can potentially play an important role in the construction of a European identity, especially for the younger generations who have had or will probably have a real experience of Europe. This work would be transitional, until a real trans-European mass media emerges, for example, a European television channel. It would not have a Euronews model, which tends to target the elite, but would be a channel showing series like "East Enders" but with a European flavour, or "the UEFA Cup Final" in all European states, at the same time on the same channel. Such an achievement will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the construction of a European identity.

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