Who are the most influential EU think tanks on Twitter?

3 June 2015

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Luca Barani, faculty member at the Haute École de Bruxelles.]

Addressing influence via Twitter

Usually, the starting point concerning a discussion of influential Twitter account starts with the number of followers, which provides an easy way to rank them based on their popularity. However, such a move equates audience with influence, which is problematic if the simple number of followers is taken at face value. Despite the focus on Twitter popularity as a proxy variable for think tanks’ reputation, policy influence is not necessarily linked, as the correlation between the two dimensions can be spurious.

Think tanks that are considered to be highly influential in the Brussels Bubble might not score highly in Twitter-based ratings. To offer just one glaring example: in 2014 the Lisbon Council had approximately 3,500 Twitter followers, averaging just 0,62 tweets per day since its Twitter account was established in 14 November 2008 (this is not much by any standards). However, the newly appointed President of the European Commission Juncker nominated Ann Mettler, co-founder of the Lisbon Council, as chief of the new European Strategic Policy Centre (ESPC) for policy advice, a revamped version of the former Bureau of European Policy Advisers.

At best, followership on Twitter should be seen as a manifestation of perceived reputation, which cannot be taken as a direct measure for influence.

At the end of the previous post we post the following:

“Does having a large and/or quality followership translate in a proportional amount of engagement from each of the followers?”.

To understand if followership matters, we need to focus on the underlying dynamics of off-line events mediated on-line by Twitter to see if the audience is engaged and how. I will take a look at Twitter engagement through the practice of live-tweeting, which means engaging on Twitter for a certain period of time with a series of Tweets on an unfolding subject or event, usually to elicit reactions or to generate re-tweets.

A case study: BTTD

The Brussels Think Tank Dialogues (BTTD) is an annual policy forum, organised by a consortium of 10 self-appointed ‘leading’ Brussels-based Think tanks, which is regularly live-twitted to their Twitter followership since 2013. It has become a regular feature of the calendar of EU think tanks, to take stock of the state of the European Union, usually in January. However, in order to take into account the specific political conjuncture, the BTTD was moved to address pressing political concerns. For instance, in 2014, the BTTD14 was organised in April, in order to coincide with the electoral campaign of the European Parliament.

Another recurrent aspect of BTTD is its structure in sequential sessions, organised as thematic panels, for the purposes of in-depth analysis and recommendations to improve EU policies, as well as the presence of a keynote speaker from the European institutions, for whom there is a dedicated panel. For instance, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Solana, the President of the Commission Barroso and the President of the European Council participated in previous editions. It is possible to have an idea of the exchanges of the lastand previous editions.

Since 2013, the communication activities of BTTDs have been increasingly anchored on social platforms, mainly via twitter and almost without any contribution on other social platforms such as Facebook or Youtube, with a few exceptions by some of the think tanks participating to the event. Previously, BTTDs were organised jointly with traditional media such as Agence Europe, a small news agency based in Brussels and Luxembourg, which was summarizing and reporting the main tenets of the discussion in its paper-based and online products. A legacy of this traditional communication approach is the practice of inviting journalists and/or television pundits to chair some of the BTTD sessions, to maximise the possibility of publicity of the discussions taking place at the BTTD. The new preference for presence on social media by think tanks is clearly a strategic shift of the communication practices, which is in line with the overall importance of new media logics for the visibility of these organisations, as shown by a recent study. Given the increasing prominence of social media, think tanks are also increasingly embracing them both as a tool for generating publicity for more in-depth publications and a way to communicate simple messages directly to a broader audience as well as policymakers.

The recent reorientation of BTTD towards Twitter as the single medium of choice is not at the cutting edge of current practices. Other policy forums organised by Brussels-based think tanks, such as the Brussels Forum of the German-Marshall Fund, have much more sophisticated communication strategies, combining different social media at their disposal. In this case, the event is re-diffused via many different social platforms with images, posts and videos diverging from tweets around #BrusselsForum10. However, in the case of BTTD, the fact that it is an event organised by a consortium of Think tanks was conducive to selecting the social media which is at the heart of news distribution, being the medium of choice of journalists, and is also commonly used by all the think tanks involved in the exercise for their own events.

This implies that monitoring via Twitter of the hashtag #BTTD, is an optimal way of judging the engagement of the concerned think tanks with social media. In order to gauge the impact on Twitter of such a twitter-mediated event, the following table draws a comparison with similar events which happened in the same period, having a similar footprint in terms of reaching to a potential audience (Reach is the number of unique Twitter accounts that received tweets about the search query, which represents the size of the maximum unique potential audience; Exposure is the number of overall potential impressions generated by tweets included in the search query, representing the total number of times tweets were delivered to twitter timelines during the event).

Figure 1:

twetosphere audiences


Twitter dynamics over time

The BTTD15 dynamics on Twitter over time share most common grounds with the other analysed events, as shown by the figures below.

Figure 2:

Figure 2

Figure 3:

Figure 2.2

Despite the differences among these events, consortium events such as TTIX2015 and BTTD15 against a one-think tank event such CEPSLAB or the global outlook of TTIX 2015 against a more EU-specific reach for BTTD15 and CEPSLAB, the dynamics looks very similar, mostly because of their established footing as recurrent think-tank events.

Firstly, in anticipation of the main event, the concerned think tanks’ corporate accounts are seen to be advertising the specific hashtag of the event to their Twitter followers. Also, it is not uncommon for individual participants to the event, having an active Twitter account, to anticipate their presence and their topic of intervention. Depending on the individual account, reminders can be repeated frequently or just sent once. Of course, a distinction has to be made between Twitter accounts who are more visible (depending on their followership and reputation) and those who happen to be more vocal (tweets, retweets and favourites) around the event hashtag.

Secondly, during the event, the more active Twitter accounts generating tweets with the specific hashtag are of those of the organisations and of their personnel organising the event. Whereas, the more visible tweets (and re-tweets) are generated by Twitter accounts of invited participants to the event, which have already an established basis of followers on Twitter. It is the latter type of accounts which pushes up the reach on Twitter of such events. What seems to lack during the live Twitter broadcasting of think-tank events is actual interaction between Twitter accounts of participants on- and off-site, which constitute a slight minority of the exchanges on Twitter in comparison with tweets and re-tweets. In fact, Twitter corporate accounts of think tanks are exclusively managed by communications teams of the concerned think tanks, which adhere to standard working practices, such as referring to the most recent work or re-tweeting quotes from the most high-profile members of their organisation.

Thirdly, there is still a clear divide between participants to the conference who are simultaneously using Twitter and more traditional participants, which are still the majority. In the case of BTTD event, Twitter appeared to be the preserve of communication teams. In this sense, Twitter was mainly used as an additional channel to disseminate soundbites from speakers and questions from participants, but not to create interaction or discussion within the digital sphere. Even if promoting the use of the related Hashtag by its presence on the programme and on Presentation screens during the session, the speakers did not try to engage their Twitter audience when not addressing the public. Again in the case of BTTD, notwithstanding critical tweets targeted to some of the speakers and organising think tanks, there was not a coordinated answer except from other participants. For instance, unanswered queries about the lack of diversity among senior representatives of organising think tanks went unanswered by the organisers, which showed a certain lack of control and coordination over the on-line BTTD discussion.

In other events, TTIX and CEPSLAB, the organisers tried to bridge the gap between these two worlds by using Tagboards, displaying to the audience the on-going Twitter traffic generated by the event, on-site and off-site. In the case of CEPSLAB, the use of a Twitter Wall reinforced the hierarchy of users on Twitter, as the key influencers on Twitter appear to be two politicians participating to the event, but also encouraged less visible Twitter accounts to be more active.

Figure 3:

Figure 3

Lastly, by following the dynamics of Twitter communication during the event, it was possible to trace the presence of different and overlapping policy communities following the event on Twitter. Depending on the subject (and the level of invited speakers), different Twitter accounts came to prominence on Twitter, evolving around specific threads of posts and re-tweets, indicating a fluctuating online audience with peaks of interest and attention relapses. This highlighted the real potential of social media to be used, around traditional think-tank events, to reach specific audiences but also the challenges to keep Twitter alive during a day-long event. Interestingly, the more provocative remarks by speakers were more likely to be re-tweeted and commented upon on Twitter, usually with positive comments attached.

Looking at re-tweets, it is also interesting to track specific Twitter followers of the event, who are not taking an active role but are present and using re-tweets to endorse, approve or attract attention to a specific dimension or aspect of the question. In the case of the BTTD, the Canadian, US and Ukrainian embassies were among the followers of the event, especially of the panel on the EU Neighbourhood policy. This highlights the value of Twitter as a monitoring tool for organisations but also as a means to highlight a shared concern across the social media.

A preliminary conclusion

The preliminary conclusion from analysing the Twitter dynamics of the Brussels Think Tank Dialogue 2015 (#BTTD15) is that the communication practices of EU think tanks on Twitter are still broadly in line with old-fashioned broadcasting strategies.

Despite having deployed efforts to increase their Twitter followership and reputation over the last three years, the EU think tanks are still missing opportunities to engage with their audience and to make full use of the social media possibilities. At least, this was the case with observed exchanges of the on-line forum #BTTD15.

This approach was reinforced by the fact that this event established itself as an institutionalized platform for keynote speakers from European institutions to deliver their speeches and messages, while at the same time functioning as self-promotion for the organizing Think Tanks, which put forward their senior researchers and managers to comment on recent events. Usually, think-tank senior executives are not likely to be very active on social media, with a few exceptions. Also, they did not present new research or new publications at the event, but rather used it as a recurrent event to advertise their activities report and most relevant publications of the previous year. In another even, such as CEPSLAB, an individual think tank demonstrated to be comparatively savvier in dealing with Twitter

However, in spite of the fact that the impact of Think Tanks on the EU political Twittersphere is still rather limited and their use of it still relatively unsophisticated, the social web constitutes a potential area of opportunity for EU-oriented Think Tanks to better establish themselves on the EU universe of political communication. This is an opportunity of which they are increasingly aware. However, the use of Twitter is still clearly confined to its broadcasting function, similar to old medias such as radio or television, without integrating fully the possibilities of engaging in conversations and discussions on-line or eliciting feedback.

Of course, the most important question, which is only partially answered by the gathered evidence, is whether the twitter presence of an organization is part of an online strategy or just blogging in a 140-character straightjacket. Disconnected uses of social media amount more often than not to wasted resources and lost opportunities in the current hybrid media system. When Think Tanks do this they are missing out of the possibilities of the web and of its social component as part of an emerging on-line public sphere.

However, as acknowledged by a 2012 study, European Think Tans can constitute an emergent infrastructure for the articulation of a European Public Sphere, albeit for a minority of highly educated EU citizens. According to this analysis, European Think tanks are now shaping expectations and perceptions about EU policies, by providing more and more access to the intricacies of the EU policy-making, specifically for a public of policy experts and engaged citizens, interested in EU affairs.