Twitter and European public sphere


A few months back at the height of the Greek crisis, I had wondered whether there was an emergence of a common European public sphere powered by Twitter.

Greece is again in the news, after Alexis Tsipras was returned to office. Attention had shifted away from Greece over the past couple of months, as Greece and the lenders agreed on a bailout programme averting ‘Grexit’, and there have been other events such as the huge number of migrants on the move across the continent that have become more pressing. After his re-election, can Mr Tsipras deliver? Implementing the agreement will always be more difficult than signing it. I guess Greece will not be too far away from the headlines in the future.

Most of this article was drafted during those days when ‘Grexit’ looked like a real possibility, however I got distracted – squirrel! – and never uploaded as a finished article to this site, and I am now using the Greek election as an excuse to publish it after a few amendments.

In observing the Greek crisis that unfolded earlier this year, especially in June and July, Twitter seemed to be the preferred medium used by politicians and the media: the president of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem tweeted regularly as the Greek crisis unfolded, Finland’s Alexander Stubb could be relied upon to announce when a meeting of finance ministers began and finished, Slovakia’s Peter Kažimír came up with eminently quotable and at times controversial tweets, and of course one must not forget the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and his missives. Many of the tweets were in English as well as their respective first languages.

Twitter is a good medium in the sense that it ensures brevity and immediacy, because the piece of information or the opinion has to be formulated within the narrow constraints of 140 characters. Because of brevity, tweets are often clearer than long-winded obfuscation beloved of politicians. Given many people in Europe understand and speak English as their second or third language, or at least can get hold of someone who does quite easily, or use a half-decent machine translation, Twitter and the use of English might have been helping to create a discernable European public sphere during the crisis. Tweets can be easily embedded into websites thus achieve a wider reach: many live blogs and rolling coverages by the established media outlets depended on tweets from various sources to keep their readers updated. The use of hashtags makes it easier to follow events and allows for a snapshot of vox populi.

In most countries, beyond the constraints of languages, politics and political news reports are mostly framed within the domestic political narratives, and naturally politicians need to appeal to their domestic electorate, since they are not elected by votes from other countries in the European Union. The EU is a collection of democracies, not a single democracy, and the peoples of the EU rightly or wrongly do not take the European Parliament elections that seriously, but in instances such as the Greek crisis and the current migration crisis, it would help to have a common European public sphere, rather than 19 national political narratives.

If a deeper integration in the EU were to proceed, then such integration cannot solely take place at the political, fiscal, or administrative level, but it will also require a common public sphere. It will be interesting to see if Twitter will be at the centre of it.