Written by Luciano Morganti & Heritiana Ranaivoson
On the 8th and 9th of November 2018, the 9th edition of EuroPCom, the European Public Communication Conference, was held at the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. This year the conference scored a record figure of 1,714 registrations. Also this was the first gender-balanced EuroPCom event to date! But this year EuroPCom established also other records with a very young audience (41% of participants were under 30 years old), 15% of participants coming from academia, and 66% female participants. As stated last year, EuroPCom is now the de facto annual “to be” event for communication managers and experts from local, regional, national and European authorities.
Campaigning for Europe was the title and the topic of this year EuroPCom conference.
Also, this year, the European Investment Bank and the OECD joined the European Committee of the Regions, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of the EU and the European Social and Economic Committee in the organisation of the conference.
Two EuroPCom sessions were dedicated to discuss topics related to the interests of the MediaRoad project and its stakeholders. These were The European Elections: media quo vadis? and Disinformation and Elections: lesson learned.
The European Elections: media, quo vadis?
Personalisation can help the storytelling about European elections, but only if accompanied by a true debate on policies and issues.
With the European elections just a few months away, it is imperative for the European Union to get its citizens involved and participate in European democratic processes. How to replace people’s apathy towards the forthcoming European parliament elections with active engagement and how to help European citizens to feel a connection with the European project? The session The European Elections: media, quo vadis? reflected and gathered ideas on how to make this possible.
The moderator, Raffaella de Marte (Head of the Media Services Unit at the European Parliament), opened the session with a reflection about the low turnout in the 2014 European Elections (42%) and emphasised that the EU wants to be increasingly active in the national media in order to be present in its citizens’ lives. To that end, the EU had stepped up its media campaign, with 1,757 journalists receiving briefs on the election and senior management from the European Parliament discussing TV election reporting in 14 countries. The main result of this effort is that there has been as much reporting on the forthcoming election in September 2018 as there had been in the three months prior to the 2014 election. Raffaella de Marte then asked whether the personalisation of the Commission presidency could help motivate people to vote. Dr Katjana Gattermann (assistant professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research) tried in her intervention to answer the question. She presented first some evidence and explained that a sample of European citizens had been asked “if you could vote for a candidate directly, how likely would you be to vote for…” and given the names of the Spitzenkandidaten. Only a few citizens had recognised any of the candidates and only 16% had been able to align their evaluation of the lead candidates with party preferences. This demonstrates the difficulty that citizens had in making sense of lead candidates, recognising them and developing preferences. Dr. Gattermann ended up on a positive note: for the 2019 elections, however, things might be better: the process of choosing the Spitzenkandidat is no longer unprecedented and policy positions have taken on a bigger role in comparison to 2014. Furthermore, the links with national parties are being emphasized and additional pan-European campaign channels are being explored.
Raffaella de Marte asked then another question about the focus of media in the next European Parliament elections. This was taken up by Nicola Frank (Head of European Affairs of the European Broadcasting Union). She outlined the media strategies used to promote the elections in 2014 and described the Eurovision presidential debate between the five lead candidates, which was broadcast live on 137 channels in 27 countries. The debate was held in English, with interpreting provided by the European Parliament, but this, she said, proved to be a challenge, and was further complicated by the fact that two of the candidates refused to speak English. The debate attracted 5 million viewers, but could have reached up to 136 million people globally. She went on saying that, even though European media report on EU subjects all year long, it has proved difficult to explain to the public why the EU and its elections are relevant to them. The current discussions around emotional topics like Brexit and the migration crisis have led to cautious optimism that people are more interested in EU affairs than before. As the use of social media will also be further expanded in the run-up to the 2019 elections in an attempt to reach as many people as possible, especially young people, who are known to vote at lower rates than older generations, Nicola Frank concluded by saying that the focus of the media campaign would therefore be on engaging in social media activities, presenting the lead candidates, hosting relevant news stories, reaching out to a broader audience, and giving insights into the main policy areas. A number of other efforts would be made to advertise the elections more widely and boost the involvement of Member States and the public: videos of candidates with translation in more languages, complementing the Eurovision election debate with debates in the candidates’ home countries, and national events around these debates in all Member States.
Disinformation and Elections: lesson learned
Democratic processes are not the same as selling plane tickets online.
Ian Vollbracht (Joint Research Centre of the European Commission), as moderator of the session, remembered the audience that in the State of the Union Speech of last September, president Junker stated that Europeans should be able to make their political choices in fair, transparent, and secure European elections. Following these recommendations, the session then reflected on important topics related to election cooperation networks, online transparency, protection against cyber security incidents, and fighting disinformation campaigns.
Sam Jeffers (co-founder of ”Who targets me”) explained that his project tracked highly targeted political advertising on social media. The initiative started with the goal of tracking spending on advertising, particularly on Facebook, in the UK’s general election in 2017. The main aim was that of determining whether people and political parties were involved in this campaign in a legitimate way. While the elections in the 1990s were more television based, with control on mass media, more recently we moved into a period where Facebook has become a paid social platform for advertising. The use of this new type of advertising has been observed particularly in the Brexit campaign and in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Here the biggest challenge was constituted by a lack of understanding of how current opaque campaigns with huge volumes of ads worked. Sam Jeffers thought that new tools and research methods were needed in order to understand the use of targeted paid media in campaigns. ”Who targets me”, a browser extension to collect Facebook ads, has been created to respond to this specific need. Users of ”Who targets me” get a personalised record of the advertisements they have been targeted with. Furthermore, these data can also be used by civil society organizations, media and researchers. At the time of writing, the project is expected to be launched in all EU Member States before the next European elections.
Liz Carolan (founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative) explained why she came up with the initiative in the context of a referendum on access to abortion in Ireland in 2017. The aim of the initiative was to make sure that the discussion and activity happening online would be exposed to the same amount of scrutiny as activities in the public domain. She made very clear that Ireland had strict rules for expenditure on TV and radio ads, but none for digital ads. Therefore, the goal of the project was to highlight the challenges present in many regulatory frameworks and to build a foundation for regulatory reform. Liz Carolan teamed up with Sam Jeffers’ ”Who targets me” to give individuals an opportunity to understand the ads they were seeing. Various ads were filtered in order to find those targeting the Irish people and trying to influence their views on abortion. In spite of the Irish law mentioned earlier, the evening before the referendum Google had displayed five different ”vote no” ads to a person who was simply trying to buy a necklace. The aim of the regulation currently being developed was to give access to the public to a balanced array of information and ensure that the flow of information could not be monopolised by one group. Liz Carolan said she intended to replicate the initiative in Ireland in time for the European elections.
The EuroPCom Advisory Board is currently working on the program for EuropCom 2019. MediaRoad will keep its readers informed about these activities.
Luciano Morganti is Professor at the VUB in the Communication Department where he teaches in the international master New Media and Society in Europe. He teaches courses related to New Media, the European Public Sphere, and Internet Governance. He is a visiting professor at the College of European Political and Governance Studies department and the Development Office. Luciano graduated in Philosophy at La Sapienza Rome (1994), he has a master degree from the College of Europe – Bruges (1997) – European Advanced Studies – Human resources development and a master degree from the ISC – Saint Louis – Brussels (2002) – Interactive Multimedia Project – Cybercommunication. He obtained his PhD from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (2004) – Communication Studies. His main research interests are the European Public Sphere and Citizens Participation, Internet Governance and the changes brought by New Digital Media to our societies. @MorgantiL; @BrusselsTalking
Dr Heritiana Ranaivoson is Senior Researcher and Project Leader at imec-SMIT-Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). He holds a MSc in Economics and Management from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan and a PhD in Industrial Economics from Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne. He has led several projects for European Commission, Unesco, Google, etc. His main research interests are cultural diversity, media innovation, wearables and the economic impact of digital technology on cultural industries.
Photo: © Committee of the Regions