This is your brain online: How Twitter could combat voter apathy

By Carl Miller

The European elections are now just around the corner, and three trends are coming together to set a very worrying scene indeed.

First, profound disaffection with politics and the political system – both national and European – has set in across Europe. Mainstream political parties, trapped in a decades-long decline of confidence and trust, have steadily lost their ability to inspire and mobilise voters.

Second, the average EU turnout in European elections has itself fallen year-on-year since 1979, from 62% in 1979 to only 43% in 2009. Underneath these numbers, there is a significant demographic challenge: only around half of today's younger people vote than previous generations, and certain minority groups across Europe are often even less likely to exercise their civic rights.

Third, as unemployment levels remain high, and real-wages and living standards plateau or decrease, an anti-establishment political insurgency has gained prominence and momentum. Mainstream politics, already battered and enervated, will be competing against a newly empowered body of protesting newcomers that, whilst diverse, has shown a worrying and increasing tendency to lump economic blame on migrant and minority communities.

The stakes are high. These elections will return 751 MEPs to a parliament that is more powerful than ever before. It will, from choosing the president of the European Commission down to the everyday ebb and flow of the committees, play a hugely consequential role in the future direction the EU takes.

While to many people the European parliament may feel distant and irrelevant their everyday lives, its powers and responsibilities are very real indeed.

Whilst many of the reasons for the EU's democratic deficit are long-standing, complex and entrenched, there is one thing that must be done immediately: increase voter turnout. This is vital to ensure that the elections produce a body of representatives that genuinely reflect the views, concerns and priorities of the European constituency, to ensure the democratic mandate and legitimacy of the parliament and to know, whatever historic turn the EU takes over the lifetime of the parliament, it did so directed by the voices of its citizens.

In a new project, Demos is helping to get out the vote through using an underexploited and potentially game-changing new resource: social media. In contrast to the decline of mainstream politics, the use of social media has exploded.  More of us sign into a social media platform at least once a day than voted in the last European elections, and close to 350 million people in Europe currently use social networking sites – three in four EU citizens.

As mainstream politics increasingly feels, to many people, remote and irrelevant to their everyday lives, social media can vitally help to reengage the disaffected and disenchanted through:

(1) Understanding citizens' political priorities, concerns and barriers to voting: Social media has created significant new social and political spaces where people talk about their fears and hopes, where they say, in huge numbers, what they find important in their everyday lives. CASM has developed technology to allow us to listen to these expressed attitudes, to both inform campaigns to drive up the vote – spreading the messages that matter to people – but also, eventually, to help the members of the European parliament be more responsive and agile to the people they represent. Social media research is a vital new data-driven way to make campaign messages powerful and relevant to the people that need to hear them.

(2) Help to spread pro-vote messages far and wide: Social media are not just spaces where we can learn about people, they are also places where we can reach them. Indeed, social media is changing the nature of what a campaign is. Voter-drive organisations now have the option not just to broadcast messages to people as leaflets or placards, but to interact: to gather like-minded supporters and help them to craft and spread the messages, online and offline, that work with their own networks. Appropriable, humorous, shareable messages, spread through highly targeted Facebook and YouTube advertising, Google adwords and clever social media promotion is a new, potent weapon in the campaign arsenal.

Systematically harnessing social media to drive up turnout has remained out of the reach of all but the most funded and best-equipped electoral campaigns. For civil society – advocacy, activist and research groups – the technology and know-how is often too expensive, inaccessible or technically challenging to develop, acquire or operate. One recent report found less than half of all small to medium sized third sector organisations use social media effectively.

So, in the run-up to the elections, we will be doing our best to make good this gap – working with vote-drive organisations in Hungary, Greece, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, to increase voter turnout specifically within marginalised and minority groups through using social media to its fullest potential.

If you're also working on getting out the vote, let us know, and we'll try to help. These trends must be reversed, or the worst is yet to come.