The destiny of ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is an example of the limits of traditional diplomacy and the potentials of e-participation in political life.
This shift in the way policy is made was confirmed by Maroš Šefčovič, EU Commission Vice-president: ‘We saw how our absence in the world of social media on this particular topic caused us a lot of troubles. I think this is a lesson for all of us that we have to be much more active and in a much more communicative mood when it comes to such sensitive topics in the future.’[i]
Anti-ACTA protests were triggered by initial secretive ACTA negotiations. After starting off on the wrong foot, subsequent efforts to make negotiations more open did not work. Even the watered-down final text could not save ACTA.[ii]
What can the EU, and other governments, do in order to adjust their ways of working to the requirements of our time?
As Šefčovič said, politicians must start listening and, in particular, e-listening, more than ever before. The voices of people worldwide are getting louder, more coherent, and more strident via the Internet. They need to be heard and engaged in global negotiations. As The Economist wrote in its comment on ACTA: ‘Internet activists used to be dismissed as a bunch of hairy mouse-clickers with little clout. Not anymore.’
As Šefčovič said, the EU should increase its presence in social media. However, this is not easy to achieve. While we can learn how to use Twitter or Facebook in one day, we need at least one month to start using them in a reasonably effective way (learn to listen and follow, acquire culture, start developing a voice). Even more time, at least one year, is needed for an institution, such as the EU, to effectively integrate social media into its operations.[iii] Directives and orders cannot help. It is difficult to ‘order’ staff to be creative and engaging. The quantitative requirement to have a certain number of blog posts or tweets does not help. Social media is about quality. One insightful post or tweet can be more valuable than hundreds of bland ones. Yet, consistency and regularity in tweeting and blogging are essential for their success.
If traditional organisational mechanisms cannot help, what can? Institutions can create a framework for social media. They should increase error-tolerance, which is counter-intuitive for many governmental elaborate mechanisms to avoid errors. Whatever can lead towards errors, including innovation and initiative, is usually avoided. Staff should be allowed to experiment and not be punished for possible ‘mistakes’. Institutions can provide basic guidelines, start collecting good examples, and offer training for staff. The key is to inspire staff and engage them through nudging until they internalise these new ways and start using social media as they use e-mail or the telephone.
Social media requires a change of habits in communication and an organised daily routine, which like any change of habit, requires time and patience. This slow way of integrating social media does not correspond to the perception of immediacy that surrounds social media and the Internet world.