Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication
Analysis in the European Parliament, the European
Commission and the European Council
The lack of European Union (EU) legitimacy is often viewed, at least partly, as
a communication deficit (Meyer, 1999; Andersen & McLeod, 2004; De Vreese,
Banducci, Semetko & Boomgaarden, 2006; Spanier, 2012). Spanier (2012) defines the
EU’s communication deficit as “the apparent impossibility for the EU of communi-
cating with its citizens”. Lilleker & Koc-Michalska (2011) state that both “the Euro-
pean Commission (EC) and European Parliament (EP) are keen to reduce the
democratic deficit which is at the heart of critiques of politics at the European level.”
Meyer (1999) highlights the role of political communication in legitimating gover-
nance. Michailidou (2008:348) argues that “for the EU institutions a first step towards
democratic legitimation is to establish public dialogue between the EU deci-
sion-makers and the public, with the latter’s feedback incorporated in the deci-
sion-making process.” Amongst the communication tools mobilized by the European
institutions, Michailidou (2008:348) believes that the “Internet offers a viable alterna-
tive to an offline, more conventional media-regulated communicative platform.”
The Internet has indeed been recognized as offering new means of political com-
munication in democratic societies and extensive research has been conducted on
the democratic potential of the Internet (Chadwick, 2006, Coleman, 2004; 2005;
Coleman & Blumler, 2009). Blumler and Coleman (2010:147) note that “with the
emergence and evolution of the Internet, in its many shapes and guises, there has
been a range of hopes and speculations about its redemptive potential.” At the Eu-
ropean level, this belief is even stronger. Lilleker and Koc-Michalska (2011) empha-
size the potential the Internet offers for legitimizing the European institutions.
This article proposes to assess whether new political communicative spaces are
emerging in the European Union as a result of the use of internet, and more specifi-
cally social networking sites (SNS), by political actors and civil servants within Eu-
ropean institutions. What are the consequences for European policy makers and
what is the impact on European political communication? The aim of this chapter is
to present the features of EU communication on SNS and to examine whether the
European media ecology has been transformed by social networking sites, in partic-
ular the EU media relations. In order to identify, describe and analyze the main
characteristics of EU digital communication, the article focuses on the three main
European institutions (the European Commission, the European Parliament and
the European Council). The research investigates whether SNS make it possible, or
not, to overcome the communication deficit of the EU. First, the paper gives an over-
view of the place of SNS within institutions, second it investigates the type of com-
munication of European institutions on SNS. After focusing on civil servants and
political actors in the European Commission and Council, the presentation turns to
Members of the European Parliament (MEP) for eventually highlighting the situa-
tion of the “Brussels bubble”1as a whole.
The paper adopts a multi-disciplinary approach that encompasses theories from
political science, linguistic, sociology and communication studies. Its focus is on
contexts, actors and practices, because “it is people who conduct European pro-
cesses” (Adler-Nissen, in Busby 2011). This approach justifies the proposed research
methodology: participant observation, interviews and discursive analysis. As
a parliamentary assistant in the European Parliament between 2009 and 2012, it was
possible for me to develop a deeper exploration of the institutional and political
context and to understand better the relationship between people’s practices and
their context. Following this ethnographic fieldwork, a number of interviews were
conducted in 2012 with civil servants, staff and politicians in the three institutions.
The objective was to muster a very heterogeneous corpus which extends across dis-
courses on SNS as well as discourses about SNS. Official and internal documents of
institutions, texts emanating from SNS as well as interviews actors were incorpo-
rated into the corpus.
Theoretically, this paper is a continuation of Oger and Ollivier-Yaniv’s research,
whose work is at the crossroad of interpretive sociology and discursive analysis.
“This rapprochement was initially suggested by problems of research emanating on
the one hand from the sociology of political and public institutions and according to
an important place to actors’ discourse, and on the other hand from institutional
discourse analysis” (Oger & Ollivier Yaniv, 2013). Such an approach brings actors
and agencies into the study of the EU communication, focusing on meaning, under-
standing and interpretation. The objective of this research is to appreciate the logic
of practices and actors’ understandings of the EU communication on SNS in order
to assess whether the EU communication on SNS is innovative.
Communicating Europe: the growing place of the Internet
and social network sites
“Commission staff are increasingly called upon to communicate with the general
public and stakeholders via a wide variety of channels. One recent development is
92 Sandrine Roginsky
1The Brussels bubble refers to the working settings inside and outside the European institutions.
that social media (...) are growing more popular for people-to-people communica-
tion.” This is how “the guidelines to all staff on the use of social media” produced
by the European Commission are introduced.2On the side of the European Parlia-
ment, the assessment is similar: its strategic plan of communication 2011–2014
mentions: “Parliament’s presence on social media platforms offers a unique,
cost-efficient opportunity for interactivity with citizens.”3
Furthermore in a resolution entitled “On journalism and new media – creating
a public sphere in Europe,” supported by a majority of Members of the EP, the EP
believes that “social media are particularly adequate for communication. (...) One
must be where the conversation takes place i.e. Facebook, Twitter and other online
social networks.”4There is no similar document for the European Council. In this
institution, communication is viewed as “a service to specific users,”5i.e. journalists
and bloggers, European and national civil servants, researchers and students. How-
ever the three institutions are active on Twitter and Facebook. As recalled by
Podkalicka and Shore (2010:100), the EU “has been particularly keen to mobilize on-
line technologies, including popular social network sites.”
Digital social networks appear to offer its users a tool for expression which is
both personalized and institutionalized, and therefore could fit perfectly in the
communication apparatus of European institutions.6Moss and Coleman consider
three communicative characteristics of the blogs which all relate to impression
management (Goffman, 1959): “politicians attempts to seem like ordinary people”
(Moss & Coleman, 2008:9), they develop relationships with citizens which are live,
spontaneous and direct, they are both “conversing with and listening to the pub-
lic” (Moss & Coleman, 2008:9). All those three characteristics are today attributed
to SNS by academics.7Therefore there is an injunction for actors, both in the EC
and the EP but also – to a lesser extent – in the European Council, to use web 2.0
tools in order to interact with citizens and to create space for moments of delibera-
tive democracy. “The use of social networking platforms, it is argued, can play an
essential role in politics broadly by attaching visitors to these online presences to
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 93
2European Commission, Social Media Guidelines for all staff, http://ec.europa.eu/ipg/docs/
3European Parliament, “Action plan for the implementation of the Parliament’s updated
communication strategy 2011–2014”.
4Report on journalism and new media – creating a public sphere in Europe, 2010/2015(INI),
6The Communication officer of a Commissioner explains that on SNS’ accounts, the Com-
missioner writes both “in her capacity as a commissioner and as a person” (Interview 8).
7About Twitter, for instance, Jackson and Lilleker write: “the most popular use of Twitter is
for self-promotion (...)” (2011:87). “Through the promotion of self, MPs encourage voters to
develop an empathy with the politician as an ordinary human being. (...) That tools such as
Twitter offer an easy, convenient and controllable way of communicating such personal in-
formation” (2011:90). See also Castells (2001), The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet,
Business and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
the host and their political campaign” (Lilleker & Koc-Michalska, 2011).8Hence,
Lilleker and Koc-Michalska call for a greater use of SNS. Boyd and Elison (2007) de-
fine SNS as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or
semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users
with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connec-
tions and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature
of these connections may vary from site to site.” This definition focuses on SNS
such as Facebook. In this paper, the two social network sites that are the most com-
monly used by the EU are examined: Facebook but also Twitter. Twitter is
“a microblogging site which allows users to deliver statements, thoughts and
links in 140 characters to followers as well as a wider Internet audience” (Jackson
& Lilleker, 2011).
Counting the different accounts of the institutions on Twitter and Facebook is
not an easy task, especially as regards to the European Commission. In April
2012, on Twitter there were one main institutional account (@EU_Commission),
20 DGs Twitter accounts, 16 personal accounts of Commissioners, 16 personal
accounts of Commissioners’ spokespersons, three personal accounts for
spokespersons of the entire institution, plus a number of accounts for specific
projects or services. On top of that, not included in the research, there are 27 ac-
counts of national offices of the Commission as well as the official offices outside
the EU. The communication of the EP as an institution is less diffused, with one
main Twitter account in English, different Twitter accounts for each official lan-
guage of the EU as well as accounts of parliamentary committees and the press
media team.9But in this institution, there are also 766 MEPs, politicians directly
elected by citizens, amongst whom a majority is now using SNS according to dif-
ferent recent studies.10 Besides, the institution has developed a specific platform
entirely dedicated to political actors of the EP, which is called EP Newshub and
displays items that those actors have published on other platforms, such as Twit-
ter and Facebook.11
94 Sandrine Roginsky
8See this press release by European People’s Party group in the European Parliament: “Web
2.0’ tools are a constitutive element of our contemporary societies and are crucial to enhance
direct contact with EU citizens. Promoting and enhancing the use by MEPs of 2.0 tools con-
tributes to getting Europe closer to citizens on a daily basis.”, October 1, 2010.
9The different platforms are presented on the EP website: http://www.europ-
10 Studies conducted by various research and public affairs consultancies, such as “EU Social
Media Usage: New trends, new opportunities” in May 2013 (http://www.digitalpulse.eu/
EUDigitalPulse_2012.pdf); “Fleishman-Hillard’s 2nd European Parliament Digital Trends
study” in December 2011 (http://www.epdigitaltrends.eu/) and “New MEPs survey: atti-
tude towards information and communications tools” in September 2009 (http://www.web-
Communication of European institutions on SNS:
political, institutional or personal communication?
Ollivier-Yaniv and Oger (2006) define institutional discourses as those which are of-
ficially produced by an individual or collective actor who has a legally registered
position, whether he or she is a civil servant or a political representative. In other
words, the institution circumscribes the status of the addressers,12 the types of con-
tents that are said or not, etc. As Maingueneau (2002) explains, “the speakers enter
a pre-established frame which, generally, they do not modify”. On the contrary, SNS
seem to alter and modify this “communication contract” (Charaudeau, 2002).
Charaudeau defines communication contract as follows: a speaker and an ad-
dressee are bound by a reciprocal recognition contract that allows them to under-
stand each other. This contract has the function of constraining the operating
procedures of production and interpretation of the communication act, while at the
same time allowing the participants to co-construct the meaning (Charaudeau,
2002). However, SNS aggregate and mix together, in a single space, not only the dif-
ferent status of the addressers (e.g. a Commissioner may talk as a spokesperson for
the institution and he may talk as a national politician) but also the addressers who
have different statuses (i.e. a Commissioner and a spokesperson). In other words,
the status of the issuer is not perfectly clear and is fluctuating: a representative of the
institution for some messages, a representative of him/herself for others. Statuses
of addressers vary, which impact upon communication itself, both in terms of types
and contents. Denton and Woodward (1990, in McNair, 2011:3) characterize politi-
cal communication in terms of the intentions of its senders to influence the political
environment. As they put it: “the crucial factor that makes communication political
is not the source of a message but its content and purpose.”13 Political communica-
tion is argumentative. “It is, first and foremost, politics. It is about all the communi-
cation efforts by those addressers who try to make people adhere to public
perceptions that will orient their preferences” (Gerstlé, 2004:6).
Therefore the question here is whether communication of European institutions
on SNS is political or not. If not political, communication on SNS can be institutional
or personal. Pasquier (2011) defines institutional communication as a form of com-
munication focusing on promoting institutions and public organizations. “It is not
about emphasizing activities but the organization itself”, as “organizations need to
position themselves and to build a positive image which makes it possible to
achieve the objectives” (2011:77–78). According to him, institutional communica-
tion is a form of public communication. It is mainly focused on informing. A person-
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 95
12 I use the notion of «addresser» as it entails that speech participants are construed as roles.
In this respect, any statement is the result of enunciation and the elements intervening in this
enunciation or communicative act are the addresser, the addressee, the content and the con-
crete moment and place which make up the situation of enunciation.
13 The research highlights that communication of European politicians often follows edito-
rial rules that usually apply to press writing, providing more and more factual analysis.
alized form of communication, on the other hand, relies on an expressive form of
communication (Breton & Proulx, 2002). If we go back to Jakobson’s functions of
language, this type of message “aims at a direct expression of the speaker’s atti-
tude toward what he is speaking about. It tends to produce an impression of a certain
emotion, whether true or feigned” (Jakobson, 1960). On Facebook, communica-
tion of EU institutions is mostly informative and explanatory. On Twitter, the ac-
tors in charge of communication who have been interviewed point out that there
“two types of Tweets: [firstly] political tweets, [which are] more interest-
ing [and] more personal, in order to communicate on things that we can-
not find in press releases, and [secondly] tweets to push information, that
are more institutional tweets, to send people to the website.”14
The institutional messages follow “the lines to take that are disseminated among
everybody, defensive points that are disseminated among cabinets, commissioners,
spokespeople, so that there is a certain degree of coherence.”15 The discursive analy-
sis conducted in this research shows that these types of message are the most fre-
quent ones on Twitter, on all the different accounts, in each institution. But the
specificity of SNS is the possibility to juxtapose different types of messages – as il-
lustrated by the example below. On one particular day, ten messages are published
on the European Commission and European Parliament’s Twitter account that ad-
dress various topics and, more importantly, swing between an informative and
political register – following the definition that Gerstlé (2004) gives of political com-
munication. According to him indeed, messages that encourage the follower to give
his or her view are a form of political communication. In the example below, we find
three political messages on the European Commission’s account. The EP also uses
this type of editorial messages, mostly on Facebook.
However, those messages seem to serve communication purposes only: it is not
clear whether and how the feedback of followers on SNS is taken into account by the
These messages are what Ollivier-Yaniv and Oger (2006) call “institutionaliz-
ing discourses” that can be carried out by any institutional addresser, and can be
easily understood, but are removed from the specific contextual circumstances
of the enunciation. These institutional discourses are updated on a permanent
basis and are therefore always of-the-moment. Thus, even on contentious topic,
such as ACTA,16 the communication of the European Parliament is mainly de-
scriptive and neutral: the account merely describes what is happening in the in-
96 Sandrine Roginsky
14 Interview 2.
15 Interview 3.
16 ACTA – Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement – is an international trade agreement deal-
ing with intellectual piracy around the word. ACTA is no longer a planned treaty for the EU
as the European Parliament voted against.
Indeed, “the editorial line must respect political neutrality and share the plat-
form equitably across the different political opinions expressed by Members of the
European Parliament.”17 Such a process consists of “smoothing of political content”
through two procedures that Oger and Ollivier-Yaniv (2006) have highlighted:
firstly the change of timing and secondly the deletion of partisan politics. The ac-
count of the President of the Commission is the best illustration: it was first called
“European Commission”, then the name changed to “EC_live” and it is now
“BarrosoEU”. This account is particularly interesting:
“Throughout 2011 there was an awareness that this catch-all account
would not do the trick for political communication anymore. That’s when
we separated it and kept the EU_Commission for more general collegial
communication, and factual information about the Commission as the
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 97
17 Interview 4.
central Twitter account for the Commission. But then [we] established in
September 2011 the EC_live Twitter account. And the EC-Live Twitter ac-
count has also the image of President Barroso which indicates already that
it’s really something more presidential. So this is now about the political
messages coming from the President.”18
However, building on the definition of Gerstlé (2004) and Pasquier (2011) of po-
litical and institutional communication, those messages appear to be part of the sec-
ond and not the first category following a process of “smoothing of political
content” as described above.19 Such statements tend to be decontextualized: they
extend over the long time and are of universal capacity. Oger and Ollivier-Yaniv ar-
gue that this type of timeless enunciation characterizes the institution rather than its
representatives. In other words, messages survive the addresser who produces
them. However, a comparative analysis of the Twitter accounts of the President and
the Commissioners of the European Commission adds a nuance to what has been
said. Some particular actors on rare occasions circumvent the rules of enunciation of
the institutions. This is the case of Commissioner Andor who uses his Twitter account
to sometimes broadcast political views different from the one of the institution, using
regularly external hyperlinks to newspapers to make outside voices heard.
Another interesting example, very rare if not unique, is the insight into an inter-
nal dispute given by another Commissioner. The meeting of the “College of Com-
98 Sandrine Roginsky
18 Interview 3.
19 Pictures also participate in the smoothing of communication.
missioners” are held in camera, it is therefore even more surprising to read such
a comment on a social networking site.
As expected on SNS, some personal messages are diluted amongst publications.
Overall, if SNS mix together different genres of communication (informative/in-
stitutional, argumentative/political and expressive/personal), there are a great
deal of institutional discourses (i.e authorized discourses) and, more rarely, political
discourses or personal stories. Even if theoretically SNS allow the communication
to be more personalized, the institutional constraints of the enunciation minimize
this process of personalization. This is also the case in the European Council: “we
don’t do politics, only institutional communication.”20 Oger and Ollivier-Yaniv
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 99
20 Interview 1.
(2006) have noticed that institutional discourses are most of the time explicative,
sometimes disjunctive, but very rarely argumentative. Furthermore, account pro-
files bring further confusion into communication: in the European Commission and
European Council, the name of officials usually includes “EU”. By tying the name
of the person and the institution together, it makes it difficult to distinguish one to
the other. Such a procedure participates to the process of decontextualisation and
institutionalization of communication. Even though actors interviewed for the re-
search all argue that “you need to be as political as possible,”21 “consensus is boring,
people feel there is nothing at stake”22 and “consensual and authorized messages
are not good communication. It is better to have a political opinion,”23 the messages
they produce are mostly consensual and institutionalized: “they are a mix. I would
say 30% political communication, 70% institutional communication.”24 As pointed
out by Aldrin and Utard (2008), “communication has always been the subject of ac-
commodation between the competing logics of the institutions and the political
constraints of compromise.” On top of that, it is important to keep in mind that com-
puted-mediated discourse is also shaped “by the technological features of com-
puter-mediated communication systems” (Herring, 2004), such as SNS.
Communication reflects organizations
In each institution, constraints borne by official and prescriptive institutional enunci-
ation impact on the discourse produced by actors on SNS. In the European Commis-
sion, the activity of producing speech on SNS is explicitly and officially constrained
by contradictory injunctions: the injunction to be on SNS, which is perceived by the
actors as being a personalized and an interactive media, while respecting a series of
rules that go against these characteristics, such as objectivity, impartiality, discre-
tion, circumspection.25 In other words, staff and members must write freely under
constraint. Validation processes highlight the type of constraints that some civil ser-
vants have to follow. In the European Commission, “within DG, the validation pro-
cess is heavy. It makes interaction difficult.”26 In a very decentralized organization,
this means that the validation process is repeated in each DG. “In the European Par-
liament, it is more centralized. In the Commission, there is a DG COMM but there is
a DG COMM in each DG. Here, it is smaller, it’s easier.”27
However, in the European Parliament too, there is a validation process: the edi-
torial content is discussed and decided once the week by the social media team, and
usually validated by the spokesperson of the EP. In the European Council, “there is
100 Sandrine Roginsky
21 Interview 5.
22 Interview 2.
23 Interview 2.
25 European Commission, Social Media Guidelines for all staff, op. cit.
26 Interview 2.
27 Interview 4.
a strong legal tradition and resistance on the part of administration”28 and a small
marge of maneuver with regards to communication on SNS. If SNS are supposed to
enable a form of direct dialogue and interactivity, some addressers are nevertheless
constrained to keep some reserve and must go through a validation process before
publishing a message. “It is difficult to take it upon oneself to write, it is not our rule
to perform in the interface, to be in direct contact, to reply.”29 Nevertheless, this as-
sessment is somewhat mitigated when looking at specific civil servants, such as
spokespersons and other top officials of the institutions. According to Georgakakis
(2010:117), “there is a growing gap between people who have invested in the EU
and invested by the EU as their political representatives.” In the European Commis-
sion, he argues that Commissioners are becoming more and more “professionalized
politicians” who are only passing through the Commission whilst civil servants are
permanent staff of the EU and have a central role. “Members and civil servants in
the European Commission have never been so distant from each other” (2012:44)
and civil servants have even more autonomy than before. Communication on SNS
is both an illustration of such a situation and a tool to gain autonomy. The Commu-
nications Officer of a Commissioner regrets that “too many tweets come from the
services. There is a lack of coherence.”30
Georgakakis (2012:75) believes that “the problem of the Commission comes
more from the capacity of its staff to embody politics rather than its decline as orga-
nization.” His observation on the functioning of the organization brings some light
on the specific question of communication. Such communication carries the collec-
tive constraints which impact on the enunciation of the institution. Communication
is generally neutralized and consensual: conflicts and debates are absent. To put it
simply, Commissioners on SNS follow similar rules and display clear affinity with
administrative representatives when it comes to publishing messages. Even though
“European Commissioners nowadays clearly embody the political function within
the European Commission” (Georgakakis, 2010:128), it does not seem to be neces-
sarily reflected on SNS where civil servants appear to also carry this function.
Digital platforms provide civil servants, and in particular spokespersons, with
a new room for expression. If originally the spokesperson function and purpose
was to communicate with journalists, with SNS the spokesperson can now commu-
nicate directly to a wider audience. The spokesperson of the European Parliament
explains: “this is the first time that we can use tools that put us directly in touch with
people, with ‘the man in the street’, without going through intermediaries, whether
it is journalists or others.”31 SNS redefine the concept of “spokesperson” in expand-
ing it beyond the official function.
Bourdieu (2004) talks about “authorized speech”: “in contrast to individual
speech, shouts or protests, the speech of the spokesperson is an authorized speech
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 101
28 Interview 1.
29 Interview 4.
30 Interview 2.
31 Interview 6.
which owes its authority to the fact that the person who speaks it draws his author-
ity from the group which authorizes him to speak in its name. When the spokesper-
son speaks, it is a group that speaks through him, but one that exists as a group
through that speech and its speaker” (Bourdieu, 2004:41). Marcoccia (2004) argues
that a spokesperson is both a representative and an intermediary. In a platform in
which political representatives themselves are present and while those tools are
praised for improving the “direct and regular contact” (Jackson & Lilleker, 2011:90)
between politicians and the general public, SNS bring together those two types
of representatives: political representatives (politicians) and institutional repre-
sentatives (civil servants, such as spokespersons). While spokespersons’ public
discourses are usually constrained by the organization and therefore depersonal-
ized, we find this is not necessarily the case on Twitter where Commissioners’
spokespersons or European Commission’s spokespersons sometimes talk on their
The European Parliament towards a more political communication?
In the European Parliament as well, administrative and political officials communi-
cate in parallel. The Parliament as an institution has been using SNS for a few years
emphasizing everyday life issues and proximity to people especially on Facebook,
not without success.32
Civil servants in the European Parliament in charge of communication on social
media believe that they have more space for expression than their colleagues in the
European Commission and Council:
102 Sandrine Roginsky
32 The European Parliament is one of the top public institutions worldwide for the number of
“The European Parliament had the tremendous benefit that it can express
political opinions, it can relay the controversies amongst MEPs. In the Eu-
ropean Council, we cannot even defend the position of a Member State.”33
“For us, it is easier than for the Commission. There is a need for drama, for
political conflict. It is more interesting. Compromise is good if there is con-
flict beforehand. This legislative term is more interesting. Since Lisbon,34 it
is more interesting. Compromise should not be made behind close doors.
Before, it was sometimes the case.”35
However, an analysis of the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the institution
shows that political conflicts in the European Parliament are not really brought
forward. As highlighted before, communication is consensual, giving essentially
the results of votes on Facebook and Twitter accounts and creating an illusion
of harmony in the EP. As an official in the WebComm Unit puts it: “we are in an in-
stitution, we have to stay within scope, we cannot be rock roll all the time.”36
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 103
Sources: EP Facebook account.
Source: EP Facebook account, 4 July 2012.
33 Interview 1.
34 Interview 4.
35 The Lisbon Treaty further empowered the EP and expanded its competence into new leg-
islative areas since 1 December 2009.
36 Interview 4.
Nevertheless, communication of the EP as an institution benefits from its members
who, contrary to the European Commission and the European Council, are directly
elected by the citizens to sit in the assembly. They bring political communication to
The remit of the Members of the European Parliament (MEP) when it comes to
communication is indeed more clearly defined: MEPs communicate their personal
views and opinions without any institution constraints, contrary to Commis-
sioners.37 “It is not possible for Commissioners to express personal opinions, they
are required to collegiality, to consensus.”38 As pointed it out before, Commis-
sioners generally opt for institutional discourses rather than political opinions on
SNS, their messages on SNS are usually much more consensual than MEPs’ mes-
sages. Even though MEP use SNS as a tool of impression management (Jackson
& Lilleker, 2011), the analysis highlights that additionally they view SNS as a way to
spread political opinions. Even if messages are not necessarily about the EU as such
but rather about themselves, a specific legislative issue or a political event, Beau-
vallet (2007:409) argues that “it would be the duty of each MEP to explain Europe, if
104 Sandrine Roginsky
Source: EP Facebook account, 11 July 2013.
Source: EP Facebook account, 5 July 2013.
37 Costa (2002) argues that MEPs enjoy considerable level of freedom as regards to their man-
date, both in terms of priorities and experiences. They can act freely as interpreters and inter-
mediaries of citizens’ expectancies. Besides, because of the lack of interest of people in the
European Parliament, their marge of maneuver is even bigger.
38 Interview 4.
not making it likeable, and to inform citizens.” Therefore individual communica-
tion of MEPs would then contribute to the communication of the EU as a whole and
supports its legitimacy. Besides, as in the other institutions, a significant proportion
of messages published on SNS by MEPs are also informative, giving details about
important votes or debates in the EP.
The e-“Brussels bubble”: a transformation of European media ecology?
“The value of social media lies in their potential to connect with citizens,
[to] listen and dialogue with them, and [to] access user groups that are less
likely to be reached [through] traditional media.”39
“I am confident that SNS can change the image of the European Commis-
“Social media are the best and only way to give a good image for the Com-
A significant proportion of officials that were interviewed highlight two main
outcomes of using SNS to communicate, i.e. direct communication with “the man in
the street” and impression management of EU institutions. However, the results of
this research show that there are some discrepancies between this objective and the
functioning of the organizations, especially the European Commission and the Eu-
ropean Council. As highlighted by Michailidou (2007), it is still not always clear if it
is the Commission and other institutions’ view “that the Internet should be used to
address a niche public, i.e. the European elites, more than it should be used to com-
municated with the general public”. In the European Commission, “we need to get
in touch with a specific audience, what we could call a niche-interests communica-
tion.”42 In the European Council,
“on SNS, we only target specific audiences that use this tool: journalists
and bloggers, civil servants from other EU institutions, national civil ser-
vants in Members Stages, researchers and academics, students. (....) We do
not try to over communicate, we do not try to seduce, we are not looking
for more followers, we do not do advertising.”43
This is even more the case on Twitter, which is perceived by all the interviewees
in the three institutions as a “more professional” SNS. “Twitter is useful to communi-
cate on things that we don’t find elsewhere. On Twitter, people are a bit more spe-
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 105
39 Answer given by Commissioner Reding to a Parliamentary Question on behalf of the
European Commission: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getAllAnswers.do?refer-
40 Interview 8.
41 Interview 9.
42 Interview 7.
43 Interview 1.
cialized, they know where to find the information;”44; “On Twitter, there is over
representation of politicians, organizations, journalists, people in official capac-
Arguably, EU communication on Twitter is expert driven. Therefore, the obser-
vation of Spanier: “the information addresses a few initiated persons rather than the
average citizens” (Spanier 2010:85) should be expanded to SNS. The Brussels bub-
ble refers to the working settings inside and outside the European institutions,
“a multinational and multilingual space, an intense environment with a distinct
rhythm of life, where people come and go often but which feels like a small village
where everyone seems to know each other and news travel fast” (Busby, 2011). After
monitoring the EU institutions on SNS (Facebook and Twitter), it has become evi-
dent that an e-Brussels bubble has emerged on Twitter and possibly, to a lesser de-
gree, on Facebook. SNS, and in particular Twitter, serve more as a means of
self-observation of those individuals involved in the Brussels bubble. Besides, the
use of English as the main language of expression on the main institutional accounts
of each EU organization is a complementary illustration of a certain closure of those
However, if SNS do not seem to have fundamentally alter political communica-
tion, EU media relations have been transformed to some extent: SNS contribute to
reshaping relationships with journalists. The relationship politicians maintain with
traditional media is crucial in political communication (Blumler & Gurevitch, 1995).
SNS, mostly Twitter, are a supplementary tool to build up this relationships be-
tween representatives, both institutional and political, and journalists.
“We have quite a number of journalists of course, which is natural because
they see us as spokespeople in the Commission and they are the ones ask-
ing the questions in the press room everyday, they’re the one calling us
also on the phone, but they follow us also on Twitter and more and more
journalists are also on Twitter. They literally can see when they start Twit-
ter account with 5, 6 followers and then they put you pretty soon among
their people to follow as well, so they really recognize that the Commis-
sion has opened new communication channels here by social media, that it
is important to stay tuned on that one as well.”46
Twitter is appreciated for its function of direct dialogue with journalists; this is
particularly true between spokespersons and journalists, as illustrated with the ex-
ample below: Koen Doens (@ECspokespersonKoen) is a spokesperson for the Euro-
pean Commission and Peter Spiegel (@SpiegelPeter) is the Brussels Bureau Chief
for the Financial Times. On the left side, the print screen from Twitter shows a direct
communication between both actors. On the right side, on top of those two actors,
the dialogue also involves someone from the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council
of the EU Communications team (@EU2013LTpress) and the Europe Editor of the
106 Sandrine Roginsky
44 Interview 2.
45 Interview 3.
Guardian (@traynorbrussels). The dialogue shows some kind of acquaintance be-
tween this different types of actors. Baisnée (2007) talks about the complicity and
social proximity between journalists and “political and administrative actors”. SNS
shed some light on those specific ties. In a way, they publicize private and interper-
sonal communication and contribute to render more transparent the mediatization
process of the EU – at least to researchers if not the general public.
Traditionally, the Commission’s discourse tends to depoliticize EU decisions in pre-
senting them as the consensual result of a confrontation of expertise (Aldrin
& Dakowska, 2011). According to V. Schmidt (2006), the EU produces “policy with-
out politics”. Social networking-sites do not fundamentally alter communication of
European actors, leaving the situation largely unchanged. Discourses on social net-
working-sites lead indeed to the blurring of politics and to a consensual form of
communication. Communication on SNS is constrained by various variables, such
as the functioning of institutions, the rules and relationships between actors but also
the technical interfaces (Facebook and Twitter follow themselves a series of editorial
Communication of the European institutions on Twitter and Facebook is there-
fore institutionalized and de-politicized, thereby suggesting that the innovation – if
real – is limited to some specific attributes. Generally, SNS bring a form of confused
Social Networking Sites: an innovative communication on Europe?... 107
innovation while maintaining the traditional functioning of the organizations. They
provide a platform of expression to a multiplicity of actors with a multiplicity of sta-
tuses. In particular, SNS tend to give prominence to important actors such as
spokespersons who might have been not as visible to a wider audience while ob-
scuring some backstage key actors who nonetheless have a key role as communica-
tion and information managers. In other words, they lighten up the validation
process for some actors while maintaining it for others. That said practices and un-
derstandings of SNS are not homogeneous amongst EU actors. On the contrary, this
research highlights hybrid usages of social networking-sites. There are as many us-
ages and practices as there are different types of actors (spokespersons, other man-
dated staff, editorial staff, commissioners, members of the European Parliament,
In such a context, there is no clear and common communication strategy, at least
in the European Commission which is nonetheless responsible for the communica-
tion of the EU as a whole. In the European Parliament there is a clear attempt to use
SNS to emphasize proximity and closeness to people. However, SNS do not really
modify the communication of the European institutions, notably because “SNS add
to without questioning the other information tools.”47 SNS are indeed often used as
an intermediary to direct the follower to other source of information. “Social media
platforms are being used to draw people’s attention to relevant information on the
Europa website. Hence the investment the Commission is making to continuously
improve the Europa website.”48 The capacity of SNS to reduce the so-called commu-
nication deficit of the EU seems in this context limited. It remains to be seen whether
MEPs, through a less institutional type of communication, are able to strengthen EU
communication as a whole.
List of interviews
Interview 1: Civil servant in charge of digital communication, European Council, July 19,
Interview 2: Commissioners’ Communication Officer, Cabinet of European Commissioner,
July 11, 2012.
Interview 3: European Commission’s Spokesperson, July 24, 2012.
Interview 4: Civil servant in charge of digital communication, WebComm Unit, European
Parliament, July 9, 2012.
Interview 5: European Commissioner’ Spokesperson, July 3, 2012.
Interview 6: Spokesperson of the European Parliament, August 30, 2012.
Interview 7: Civil Servant in charge of communication, DG REGI, July 18, 2012.
108 Sandrine Roginsky
47 Interview 6.
48 Answer given by Commissioner Reading to a Parliamentary Question on behalf of the Eu-
ropean Commission, op. cit.
Interview 8: Commissioner’s Communication and Press Officer, Cabinet of European Com-
missioner, July 13, 2012.
Interview 9: Contractual agent, Social Media Team of the European Commission, July 20,
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