[Editor’s note: This is the first post from a series on think tanks and Twitter. It was written by Luca Barani, faculty member at the Haute École de Bruxelles. The series focuses on the main challenges and opportunities think tanks face when addressing their ideas through social media.]
Social media are disrupting traditional media hierarchies and conventional approaches to political communication. This development is acknowledged as particularly relevant by policy-oriented organisations such as think tanks, which are blurring the frontiers between the production and dissemination of policy ideas. After all, the majority of think tanks -whichever political setting they operate- want to influence the ‘climate of opinion’, and most of the time they are more than eager to be interviewed by newspapers, radio or television journalists, preferably, but not always, in relation to topics related to their expertise.
In such a perspective, social media can be a channel to reach their audience directly and disseminate their point of view as widely as possible, without intermediation. As a consequence, social media offers think tanks a communication instrument for real-time or differed discussion around the intricacies of policy-making. Micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter offer a timely and low-cost way to disseminate ideas and participate to policy debates, as the potentially interested audiences are being broadened and channelled by social platforms. For instance, one of the main instruments of Twitter, the HASHTAG (#), has set the global standard for digital awareness of political events such as the Arab Spring or on-going human rights issues: gathering millions of 40-character tweets, retweets, favourites and instant ubiquity of the original label among many different social platforms and networks. However, the development of “Hashtag Politics” can also resonate within smaller settings and create digital outreach for the more mundane activities of policy-making. Of course, it has to be acknowledged that think tanks do not operate in a vacuum on Twitter. For instance, EU think tanks struggle to vie for the attention of users of social media not only with other think tanks and EU institutions but also with other sources of information and entertainment. [Editor’s note: The expression “EU think tanks” is loose shorthand for (foreign and/or public) policy institutes having explicitly as their sole or predominant organisational focus the analysis of EU affairs.] For example, during the building-up to the European Parliament elections in 2014, discussants via Twitter of EU affairs were often closely connected to the EU political elites at the national and European levels – academics, journalists, lobbyists.
Therefore, it can be maintained that the use of Twitter by an organisation is a good proxy for its engagement in social media, sometimes in combination with other forms of social communication as the web eco-system keeps evolving. For instance, approximately 40% of tweets from the Centre of European Policy Studies (CEPS) are posted via Facebook.
Are established EU think tanks seizing the opportunities offered by social media at the same degree as US-based think tanks or other countries such as Canada and the UK?
The short and quick answer is, as expected, that the Twitter community around established EU think tanks is quite small, in comparison with the US-based think tanks, as demonstrated by the following table. The gap is less noticeable when considering a platform such as Linkedin, which is not dependant on the size of the potential on-line audience, but on the strength of the local job market.
Table 1: Selected Think Tanks’ social media follower-ship: [Methodological note: Data collected and compiled in February 2015 and February 2014. Figures are only for the main corporate Twitter feed, not including dedicated team or issue feeds, or individual staff twitter accounts. Data for the US, UK, Canada and Italian Think Tanks were retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alejandrochafuen/2015/02/12/free-market-think-tanks-2015-website-and-social-media-presence/%5D
Nonetheless, the performance of the EU think tanks looks better in comparison with their counterparts in Canada and Western Europe, whereas Twitter as a communication channel is still in its infancy in Eastern Europe. However, such an intuitive statement is contradicted partly by the strong catch-up dynamics of European think tanks, which are coming to realise the importance of Twitter, as shown below.
Figure 1: Cumulative impact of opening Twitter Accounts by EU think tanks By looking at the timeline of the creation of Twitter accounts for Brussels-based Think Tanks, there is at least a 3-year lag in the adoption of the technology in respect of their American and English counterparts with an established Brussels office, as shown below.
Table 2: EU think tanks’ Twitter accounts ordered by opening date from the oldest to the newest
In this respect, the use of Twitter by the UK think tanks is an interesting case, as its think tanks are increasingly importing US think-tank practices, including marketing-driven communication, while at the same time operating in a political context which is clearly embedded in Western European practices and traditions, but heavily influenced by the Anglo-American public sphere including Twitter usage.
In order to explore further this matter, I undertook extensive research on the basis of publicly available statistics of Twitter accounts to quantify the instrumental role of this social platform for EU think tanks active around European affairs, using the year 2013 as the starting point. This cut-off date is important as it marks a certain degree of maturity of the Brussels-based think-tank tweetosphere . The overall landscape of the EU tweetosphere in which the EU think tanks participate will be the subject of the next post. Furthermore, I also did a quick bit of research on a twitter-mediated event organised by ten self-styled ‘leading’ think tanks based in Brussels at the end of January 2015: the Brussels Think tank Dialogue 2015 or #BTTD15. The Twitter footprint of this event will be the subject of a third post, which will discuss it in the context of other similar Twitter-mediated think-tank gatherings: TTIX2015 and CEPSLAB.