Tweeting to the converted

Greek social media have a liberal bias but limited political influence, analysts say By Harry van Versendaal

Next time you want to get an idea of who is going to win the elections, make sure you log out of your Twitter account first.

?I was led to believe that Drasi would easily gather more than 4 percent,? says journalist Dimitris Rigopoulos, who followed Greece's recent election campaign through social media.

He was not alone. Stories and discussions trending on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook ahead of the May 6 polls convinced many that the pro-reform, free-market party led by former minister Stefanos Manos would put on more than a decent showing.

In the end, Drasi collected a scant 1.8 percent of the vote, a result that killed its ambition of making it into Parliament. In fact, none of its political kin -- Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) and Democratic Alliance -- cleared the 3 percent threshold which would grant them seats in the House. Opinion polls, a more traditional tool for measuring voters? intentions, had safely predicted the failure.

Are people reading too much into social media? Yes, some experts suggest, arguing that the political content of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter is by no means representative of the general population.

?I do think Greece's liberals are over-represented in the social media, particularly on Twitter,? says Manolis Andriotakis, a journalist, author and social media expert.

Drasi currently has more than 4,800 followers on Twitter (about 4.2 followers per 100 Drasi voters), which is more than half of the 8,140 (about 0.7 followers per 100 ND voters) following New Democracy, the party which came first in the polls.

?Liberals have hijacked Twitter, so to speak, because they realized from early on that social media are basically a platform for debate -- and debating is something they like,? says Andriotakis.

Studies suggest the phenomenon is not exclusive to Greece. Scientists at the Pew Research Center in Washington recently found that Internet users who identify themselves as moderate or liberal are more likely than conservatives to be involved in social networking sites.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, has pretty much remained property of leftists given their soft spot for long-winded theories and analyses, says Andriotakis, who is the author of ?Blog: News From Your Own Room.? But sites like Facebook and especially Twitter -- the revolutionary microblogging tool that limits content to 140 characters -- are encouraging bloggers to leave some of their habits behind.

?Social media have pushed these people to become more concise,? Andriotakis says.

The last elections saw Greek parties and candidates embrace social media like never before. Prompted by a lack of cash that took a toll on costly communication campaign tactics such as television ads and leaflets, Greek parties went online to share their message ahead of the vote. Driven by a dedicated crowd of mostly young, tech-savvy staff and supporters, smaller parties in many ways outdid their bigger but slower-moving rivals.

However, some analysts say, if Greek liberal parties enjoyed a strong presence in the social media, it was not because of the ideas they stand for, but because they were alone in openly discussing issues seen as crucial by the local intellectual elite, such as the need for immediate and far-reaching reforms.

?Liberal ideas as such have little influence in Greek society,? journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos observes.

Limited influence

Pro-liberal or not, the overall influence of social media in Greece should not be overestimated. Quite the opposite in fact, as figures show that the penetration of the Internet in Greek homes is surprisingly low. Around 40 percent of people here use the Internet compared with 80 percent in the UK. Less than 2 percent are on Twitter. Using these sites as maps for political behavior is, well, wrong.

?Social media are like a distorting mirror. Those who are most active are part of a self-loving intellectual elite,? Georgakopoulos says. Perhaps you could draw some conclusions from the more mainstream networking sites like Facebook or even from user comments on YouTube, he says, referring to the popular video-sharing site -- but again, ?they would hardly be representative of society at large.?

Part of the problem is that even those users who do surf the Internet don't grasp its potential. ?A lot of people still browse the Internet in a linear fashion, just like they do with television or a newspaper,? Andriotakis says, meaning that people tend to navigate the Internet in a linear pattern -- on click at a time, like it?s a TV or radio broadcast. Users are not the only ones sticking to old habits. While the country?s traditional media have increasingly occupied space on the World Wide Web, they have clumsily used it as a noninteractive, Web-based mirror of their existing content. That said, one should one underestimate the influence of traditional broadcasters on social media. Figures provided by the Harvantics social media metrics website show parties and candidates trending on Twitter and Facebook after appearing on TV.

But while techno-optimists praise social media for providing us with more diverse sources of information -- take, for example, the indirect exposure from retweeted messages -- skeptics insist that the Internet can, in fact, narrow our horizons.

Businesses try to sway us by tailoring their services to our personal preferences; Twitter tells us who we should follow based on our existing contacts; Amazon recommends books based on our buying history; iTunes suggests songs we might like based on our music library. We, in other words, run the risk of getting trapped in a ?filter bubble,? missing out on information and stimulants that could challenge and expand our worldview. Similarly, our Twitter feed can feel more like an echo chamber of like-minded friends.

?You pick your own sources so you are selectively exposed to information. You only see a part of reality. You create your own microcosm. And this is something you need to always keep in mind,? says Katerina Petraki, a public sector food inspector who casually uses Twitter to access views and information that are filtered out of mainstream media outlets.

Not all is bad, of course. It may be that the idea Facebook or Twitter can change your mind-set is an illusion, Rigopoulos admits. ?But thanks to the social media, I discovered there are a lot more people out there who actually see things the way I do,? he says.

?It's not that this community of like-minded people is expanding. It's just that we get to know each other.?

[Kathimerini English Edition]