Social Networks are not only a place to meet and greet your friends online. They are becoming more and more ubiquitous and especially - but not only - for the young generation they are an alternative tool for sharing information and news. Some Social Networks promote the exchange about political topics with special tools. Let’s take Facebook for example: Facebook members can not only write on their friend’s walls, share personal messages, and follow their friend’s timeline; users can also create or become members of groups and feature so called causes. In this way they express their political views, take part in political discussion or simply show their support for certain causes on their profile.
Facebook members use group feature to discuss about the European Union
Facebook does not provide concrete figures about how many groups deal with political topics. But there are a lot of them, creating a buzz about current political events as well as about long-term processes. Given the mass of users located in the European Union, it’s hardly surprising that a number of groups are also concerned with specific European topics. If searching for the term “European Union”, you get far more than 500 results, including groups like FOR A “EUROPEAN UNION” NETWORK, At least 400 million EU citizens don ‘t want Turkey in European Union !!!!, Females In Front - EU or anti-European groups like I Declare Myself Not a Citizen of the European Union.
Looking at this lively group culture, the questions pops up: Can social media like Facebook help to create a European Identity?
Research on this topic is very rare. But Finish PhD Candidate Itir Akdogan attempted to find an answer to this question. In 2008, she examined the political outreach of Facebook through analyzing groups and causes concerning political topics and views, concentrating on Facebook groups dealing with the European Union.
During her research, the question mentioned above, “Does social media help to (re)build a European identity?” have been asked to group-members. Akdogan got 71 answers: 32 Facebook-users answer with yes, their use of Facebook does help to rebuild their European Identity, whereas 29 oppose this point of view. 38 users also believe that Facebook can play a role in (re)building a European identity for its members in general; 16 users do not share this opinion.
Common experience fosters the feeling of a European identity
Now it’s interesting to take a closer look to the reasons given for answering with yes or no:
People thinking that Facebook helps to create a European identity stress the common experience and action they can share through using online media as well as the visibility provided by the Social Network. Using Facebook groups, people can display that they are European, they can do something together, can share information and opinions, and even more, they can make their action visible to a broad public. Through this common experience they feel their European identity fostering and growing.
On the other hand, some users think that identity building rather takes place in real life than on online platforms, through your “real” experience. Facebook groups could only display that identity, but could not change it. This answer is especially interesting, because it suggests that experience on Social Networks / Facebook is seen as “unreal” by some users, and shows a sceptical attitude towards technical means. Akdogans research does not provide personal data about the answering Facebook members, but it would be interesting to know if there are correlations between the mentioned reasons and e.g. users’ age.
Furthermore some users do not think that Social Networks can change people’s minds: people opposing the European Union for example would never take a look at a pro-European Facebook group.
The reasons to join a Facebook group concerning the European Union seem to support this last point. Akdongan identified the most common reasons given by users:
- “They have a certain opinion about the group’s content: e.g. they think Facebook should open an EU network and they want to support that opinion by joining that group
- They want to display on their profile that they belong to that group: they want people who go on their profile to see that they are European and/or belonging/supporting a European cause
- They have practical benefits: such as networking with likeminded people, getting information about the subject, especially those who study and work on related subjects, related institutions
- They are invited to join the group: by their friends who have already joined that group
- They identify themselves European: so they simply feel like being part of the group”
So these Facebook groups seem first of all to be used to get together with likeminded people who confirm their point of view rather than challenge it - the Facebook group feature does not seem to invite people to discuss with users of different opinion. This observation leads to another question: How should a platform look like and which tools should it include to encourage the exchange of divergent opinions on a European level?
Simone Gerdesmeier, zebralog.com