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Likes are not the same thing as votes

How to navigate a disrupted digital campaign scene ahead of the European elections.

The 2024 European election campaign is in full swing –– but the 2024 election doesn’t seem to have the same kind of momentum behind it that characterized the 2019 election. What has changed, and how can parties ride these changes rather than be obstructed by them? Consultants Clare O’Donoghue Velikic and Seth Piper share thoughts, takes & ideas. Their main messages: focus on digital organizing, not just on digital campaigning, and be very clear about who it is you are trying to engage.

Since the last European elections in 2019, the member states of the European Union have been through a lot –– but they have also united in ways formerly unheard of. In 2020, the 27 EU countries rose to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic by issuing shared debt; in order to create the now-historic NextGenerationEU-recovery fund. Since 2022, the continent has faced war in its territory, as well as various consequences of that war, but it has remained united in action. The EU is a project largely defined in practice: every crisis forces the Union to redefine itself to rethink what is possible when states join forces. Each of these crises, therefore, has ultimately made the EU stronger.

But not everyone is happy about this: according to some polls, anti-European populists are predicted to make considerable gains during the 2024 elections, with the possibility of a coalition of Christian democrats, conservatives, and radical right MEPs emerging with a majority for the first time. If this would happen, there would be significant consequences for policies on the European level –– including those that are necessary to tackle climate change, as well as those that determine the future of the European project itself. It should be clear, therefore, that the stakes are high. While voter turnout for elections on the European level had been falling ever since the first EP election in 1979, the last election in 2019 reversed this trend: 50,6% of Europeans voted in 2019, compared to 42,6% in 2014. Hopefully, this trend reversal will continue.

Getting people engaged with the elections does seem like a bit more of a challenge this time around than it did in 2019. “Despite the fact that the stakes are higher than ever, a lot of European countries are preoccupied with domestic issues,” thinks digital organizing consultant Clare O’Donoghue Velikic, Founder & Director at ODV Digital. “Of all the EU elections that I've seen, this one feels like the one with the least energy, focus, and momentum behind it,” she says. “This turning inward, the focus on domestic challenges without framing them in an EU context –– I am seeing that everywhere.” This poses a challenge for all of the political parties campaigning across Europe this spring.

Clare O'Donoghue Velikić
Clare O'Donoghue Velikić - Founder & Director at ODV Digital

On top of that, a lot has changed in the campaigning world since 2019. “Social media platforms have changed hands, others have changed policies,” says campaign consultant Seth Piper. “Meta has now explicitly stated that political content is unwanted on their platforms, for instance. That poses another challenge, because these platforms have been a primary way for parties to connect with people. So a lot of things we campaigners took for granted now have question marks over them. The campaign scene seems a bit disrupted.”

Looking at digital platforms that have become much more popular in Europe since 2019, such as TikTok, the initial picture seems bleak: while the number of far-right members of the European parliament on TikTok is for instance roughly equal to the number of far-left MEPs, the far-right MEPs are far more active, found an analysis by news website Politico. MEPs of the Eurosceptic, populist-right Identity & Democracy group together reach more than a million users in total. To contrast this with the Greens: they currently reach less than one-twentieth of that audience on TikTok. And with a huge cohort of Gen Z’ers voting for the first time (even more since Belgium and Germany just lowered the voting age to 16) the votes of the young will become ever more important.

“Whatever you think of TikTok, it’s where a lot of young people get their information, inspiration, and entertainment,” says O’Donoghue Velikic. “Should we let the far-right have it just because they got there first? That’s a horrifying thought to me. Never mind the elections: I think we have a moral obligation to figure out how to get different messages out there.” But not all parties are as good at tapping into trends and digital youth culture yet, O’Donoghue Velikic thinks. “It’s understandable: you have all this good camera equipment and a great press team at your disposal. So you end up shooting professional videos – which you then post on TikTok. But that is not how this particular platform works: it’s all about authenticity. You’re better off, say, having a politician use their selfie camera to film themselves during their morning commute to work.”

Seth Piper agrees. “The way young people communicate these days, we find it difficult to understand, and we cannot replicate it well,” he says. “I think we are beginning to realize that we need the right people for the right channel. So, if we want to use TikTok in our campaign, we will need a young person on our team. To us older campaigners and strategists, that means that we will have to learn to accept that we cannot always oversee it all: we’ll have to cede some control. You simply can’t be part of a conversation you don’t fully understand.”

Seth Piper
Campaign consultant Seth Piper

At the same time, both Piper and O’Donoghue Velikic emphasize that likes are not at all the same thing as votes: popularity on TikTok does not necessarily mobilize people. “In the end, the way we engage with social media is mostly passive,” says Piper. “Just because you told people something, it doesn’t mean they are going to follow through with it. This was the lesson learned from some of the campaigns I’ve worked on, where we’ve poured hundreds of thousands of euros into paid social media content with the hope that this in itself would trigger people to go to the polling stations. It didn’t. So to the parties that are currently campaigning, I would say: don’t just focus on digital campaigning, focus on digital organizing –– reach through the screen. Social media platforms can be used to connect with people and start building your lists, but ultimately, you want to communicate with people on your own terms. Speak to them on the phone, email them, invite them to events, or get them engaged in digital actions like online fundraising. Those things really matter.” In other words, don’t worry too much about the far-right’s success on TikTok either. TikTok is just one tool in a bigger toolbox –– an effective tool for reaching the young but by no means the be-all and end-all of digital strategies.

“Having a million followers on TikTok might look great,” O’Donoghue Velikic says, “but if you are a member of the European Parliament and the majority of your followers are people in the US, it will have little bearing on your election. What is really needed, therefore, is a lot of deep honesty within a party about who your base is and who your targets are. Do you really know them –– as people? And are you recognizing the reality of who’s voting for you and who probably isn’t going to? You need to be ambitious enough in terms of who you can persuade –– but also realistic in terms of what you can actually achieve: you can’t be all things to all people. Once you know that, you can build your resourcing model around this information. That’s what I think every party should be doing right now. And the outcome will be different for everyone: there exists no single checklist. Digital campaigning and digital organizing, again, are tools: you can use them to build a house, but you will still need a building plan, a vision of what it is that you are trying to build –– and why this.”

Whatever the outcome of the 2024 EP elections will be, what’s clear is that the world of campaigning is changing, both online and offline. Political parties across the spectrum are in need of new strategies. “What feels positive to me is that a lot of these ideas around digital organizing are becoming more well-known,” says Piper. “I present these ideas a lot, and I can see people getting more familiar with them: the values of storytelling, or things like why it’s so important to build real, long-term relationships with your followers. So I think the understanding is coming –– the implementation is just not fully there yet. Implementation means people have to do things differently and hire people with different competencies. That is difficult and it takes time –– bravery even. But I think this is what the campaigning world needs right now.”

Get in touch with our experts on campaigning and digital organizing right now! Reach out for a conversation about your goals and discover how you can make an impact with digital organizing:


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