For Election Week, Many MEPs Still 1.0

Meet my two new friends on Facebook, incumbent MEPs Paschal Mooney of Ireland and Metin Kazak of Bulgaria. Out of the dozen or so requests I sent out to European politicians this week--in the final days leading up to the European Parliamentary elections--these were the only two to friend me.

After Barack Obama redefined the role of technology in electoral politics by using social media tools like Facebook, it's interesting to see how politicians both near and abroad have taken to the Internet.

As their constituents move rapidly ahead of the learning curve, politicians in European Parliament are getting left behind. Several large European countries have anemic representation on Facebook, a site many international politicians turn to first when building their online campaigns. 

After a perusal of Facebook pages for incumbent MEPs, the most tech-savvy ones showed to be from Ireland, Italy and France. Eighty-five percent of Irish MEPs, 71 percent of Italian MEPs and 69 percent of French MEPs are active on the site. Less present were Germany and the U.K.--both with 39 percent--and Spain with 17 percent.

"In countries like France and Italy, there is just a culture around connection and conversation, more so than other cultures," Facebook's EMEA Director Colm Long told me. "It's been interesting to see how they are using it as a gathering place for organizing offline activities and events."

Italy, Spain and France were three of Facebook's fastest growing audiences last year, and now more than 10 percent of both countries use the site.  

Since Obama's victory, an online footprint for American politicians has been obligatory.

Micah Sifry, co-founder of techPresident said Facebook and MySpace now automatically create official account pages for the 435 active members of Congress, 143 of whom are tweeting and two-thirds of whom have a YouTube channel.

Despite Ireland's impressive Facebook presence, Morgan McKeagney, CEO of iQ Content, a leading European web usability agency, told me that Irish politicians' strategic use of the internet is still inadequate.

"Their new media has been embarrassing to say the least. I can't even think of any exceptions to be honest."

How this will play out in this week's elections is unclear, but it's safe to assume that the impact will be moderate at best.

The rate of Facebook's penetration in Europe most likely includes a large percentage of the non-voting population who are either too young or too apathetic to vote.

But those who get involved in the online conversation now, while the movement is still nascent, are certainly better positioned to take advantage. For them, Sifry has advice: 

"Don't think of the web as another one-way media tool, like TV or radio or direct mail. Think of it as enabling a much richer, multi-way conversation with voters. Don't be half-committed to it-- if you say you're using the Internet to 'listen' to you constituents, then really show that you are listening. Invite people to reinvent the process with you."

Geoffrey Decker is an editor for the social media start-up

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