This is a 2-part Special Report on “How is the EU communicating in the Age of Digital Disruption? Case Study of the ‘End of Roaming’”
In this second part of the report, we will look at the following:
What is the digital communications landscape on a particular piece of legislation like on Twitter? Are the EU institutions in direct conversation with citizens? If not, who are the intermediaries of those conversations? Are they policymakers at the European level? Are they national politicians and institutions? What is the role of the media outlets and journalists?
From the 77,792 data points gathered, I have identified 53,949 Twitter posts.
Because we are looking specifically at conversations – meaning ‘retweets’, ‘likes’ and ‘replies’ on Twitter – and not stand-alone comments, I managed to isolate 40,409 Twitter conversations. It is from this basis that I have started the process of network visualisation.
A total of 32,426 users were identified.
Each user forms a ‘node’ and each interaction between two nodes is represented by a line called ‘edge’.
In the original results, there were thousands of small-scale conversations of not more than 10 users. Those were hidden in order to not cloud the data of the larger conversation communities, hence only 89% of the conversations are now visible. What we do need to bear in mind is the existence of these private conversations, most likely among citizens, who are discussing the End of Roaming without any reference to any media outlets, journalists or state actors.
Another point to highlight is the size of the nodes. The more conversations a user has with his or her network, the bigger the node is. I have chosen to ignore the number of posts a user sends out, because it is the reactions from the person’s community that I am interested in. Likewise, the number of followers does not feature. A user may have large number of users, but may not be the influencer he or she seems to be, because the individual is not able to obtain sufficient interest from his or her followers.
Some manual removal of accounts and data were also necessary, as is the case for most trending topics, the data was clouded by spam users and conversations. It was a tedious undertaking so only the most obvious were removed.
I also did not take into account the opinions expressed in the 40,409 posts. Sentiment measurements are often inaccurate, and it is also not the point of this exercise, which is to look at the communication networks that are formed around a piece of legislation, whether they are positive or negative.
Map 1: ‘End of Roaming’ networks with location highlights
This visualisation shows the major conversation networks with the country location of each user marked in different colours. As you can see, most of the conversations were very spread out and unrelated, except for the purple and blue groups. I will explain the largest conversation groups in further detail below.
In the middle, you can see the conversations in purple, which represents Belgium. This is the location with the largest conversation networks that are closely linked to one another. The biggest network is that of European Commission, which is surrounded by a huge group of multi-coloured nodes. This is a consistent feature of the other significant users in this group, such as those of @Ansip_EU, @DSMeu and @JunckerEU. If we delve deeper into the multi-coloured accounts here, we will see that these are users which are either EU-level policymakers or persons who are somehow related to the European institutions.
The multi-coloured nodes shows the different locations of users which are communicating with these accounts. This shows that the communication networks stretch across different countries.
This could either mean these accounts are communicating with EU citizens across Europe, OR they are communicating with people who are from across Europe but are not ordinary citizens and are somehow tied to the European institutions.
My hunch is the latter scenario, because the multi-coloured networks are communicating among themselves, and do not lead on to national networks to other colours, except for the UK.
The networks in blue are those based in the UK. It is the only communications group that seems to grow out of the Belgium group. Closest to the Belgium side is the Member of European Parliament Catherine Bearder @catherinemep. The other politician in this group is Stephen Williams @swilliamsmp (LibDem).
It is notable that in the UK network, there were sizeable intensive conversations led by individual journalists: @Kevin_Maguire an associate editor at the Daily Mirror, @faisalislam is the political editor of Sky News and @GaryLineker is sports broadcaster at the BBC.
There were also well-known figures leading large conversation networks, a bit further away from the main conversations: @StanCollymore is a former football player and @DanRebellato is a playwright.
Further down in the Blue group, you have the media outlet The @Independent. It is in between the UK and the US group, most likely due to its readership from both sides of the pond.
To the south of the Blue Group in red are conversations in the US marked in Orange. Here, the biggest conversation is led by New York Times @nytimes, the rest are led by private citizens.
The Yellow Group represents the networks in Spain. A notable conversation group is that of @DiarioTecnologa, a technology blog in Spain. Otherwise it is not at all linked to the EU institutional networks.
The bright green group represents conversations in Italy and they seem close to but not quite linked to the institutional networks in Belgium, unlike the UK conversations. Two accounts stand out: The largest network is led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who despite his tree million followers, led a comparatively smaller conversation here. Further to the north, is former Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Below the Belgium group, the Red Group represents communities in Germany. It is located closer to the Belgium group but not entirely linked.
Closest to the institutional networks is Martin Schulz @MartinSchulz, former President of the European Parliament and current leader of the Social Democratic Party. His party @spdde and the Greens @Die_Gruenen are the only political parties that were visibly leading a conversation on the issue, not only in Germany but throughout Europe.
Map 2: ‘End of Roaming’ networks with language highlights
This visualisation looks specifically at the languages used in the conversations.
The big purple region proves that most of the conversations conducted in Belgium, the UK and the US were conducted in English.
Not surprisingly, the conversations in Germany (red), Spain (yellow) and Italy (green) were done in their own language.
The only group that commands a multi-lingual conversation is that of @EU_Commission. In the other map, we have identified the possibility that these big communities located in Belgium may just be actors closely linked to the EU communicating among themselves. On this map, we can see a difference between the @EU_Commission and the other Belgium accounts like @JunckerEU ad @DSMeu. For the other Belgium accounts, the conversations are conducted mostly in English, indicating English is being used to communicate among people of different origins. This is not the case with @EU_Commission. However, as noticed earlier, these multi-lingual and multi-national conversations do not extend beyond its own network, this shows that it is a closed community that is not linked to any other communities at the national level.
We can draw a number of conclusions from this exercise, which attempts to answer some of the questions we set out in the first place.
First of all, is the European Union and its state actors communicating directly with EU citizens? The data says no, because the core conversation communities formed around the example topic of the End of Roaming is restricted to Belgium – most likely within the so-called Brussels Bubble. EU policymakers such as Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Vice-President Andrus Ansip continue to speak with their EU-related communities. The only account that is reaching beyond the group is that of the European Commission. However, this network stops short of further connecting with national networks.
Secondly, the only notable network discussing the issue is that of the United Kingdom. This network extends from the EU-related group, showing that these are people related to the European Union, yet are mediating between the EU and UK citizens. MEP Catherine Bearder is also the only EU-level policymaker making the link between an EU-level policy area with the national community.
One might suggest the prominence of the UK to be linked to Brexit. It is however not the purpose of this exercise to determine the link between the issue of roaming, the opinions of UK citizens and Brexit.
What is noteworthy is the rising role of individual influencers in this case study. Journalists, not media organisations, are key lead figures leading the large-scale conversations. This is consistent with the theory of digital disruption we are experiencing in recent years, where individual journalists who are skilled at using digital media command powerful influence over their readership. Likewise, well-known individuals like sports personalities are as powerful as journalists in starting and maintaining a conversation online. To a large extent, this phenomenon is unprecedented in the pre-digital age and this represents a huge departure from how people engage in political issues in a more traditional setting.
That being said, news outlets such as The Independent and New York Times still have a noticeable if not major gathering. Their communities are certainly more multi-national than those of the individuals, which goes to show traditional news outlets are not as integrated in a local community because of the neutrality they have to assume and the more formal stance in their engagements compared to individual journalists.
The disparate nature of the conversations has already been touched on above. This paints a disjointed picture of how different national communities are having their side conversations on an EU-initiated decision. What is significant about our findings is there were very few national state actors involved in the conversations. No government accounts have been detected. Only two national-level political parties from Germany talked about the issue. This goes to show the current state of affairs regarding the EU and EU citizens: the lack of an intermediary between European-level actors and the citizens on the ground. Very few national-level politicians led conversations about this European policy decision.
It is also remarkable that all other EU member states are remarkably absent from the map, especially France, considering the End of Roaming marks a historical milestone in the history of the European Union.
My last observation concerns the prevalence of English. English is clearly the lingua franca of the EU institutions and its actors. The advantage of English is that it is a single administrative language that everyone can rely on. English is a likely reason why UK-based communication networks were more closely linked to the EU-related networks, apart from the leadership shown by an MEP and several journalists. But it is not all the fault of English alone: No intermediaries in any other EU country that were as extensive as the case of the UK where MEPs, national-level politicians and parties, journalists, bloggers or celebrities, bridge the gap between Brussels and its citizens.
In the Age of Digital Disruption, it is clear that we are in the midst of transiting from a top-down vertical system of three estates to a multi-stakeholder system where the individual – whether they are state actors, journalists or influential blogger – play the role as anchors of a political debate. In this context, the EU, being a supranational state organ, faces a communications dilemma, where it has to deal with a radical change in the way representative democracy is being conducted both online and offline, and the uncomfortable position since its inception of having to rely on national-level state and media entities to engage effectively with citizens.
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about Harold Tor
Harold heads our digital services. With more than 17 years of experience leading digital campaigns at UNESCO, ILO and other international organisations, Harold conducts trainings and advises our clients on social media and digital strategies. In his free time, Harold writes on his blog www.dontthinktoomuch.com. Should you wish to contact him, he prefers you connect with him on Twitter @HaroldTor.