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“There’s a difference between going out onto the street or settling something via smart phone.”

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The internet is an extremely appropriate tool for increasing the reach of political campaigns. However, the click figures that online petition platforms release as proof of political activity are literally staggering. Wolfgang Kraushaar, who conducts research on protest culture, gives his view.

Has political participation grown thanks to the internet or is this assumption an illusion?

The term “political participation” is not particularly precise. Even the social sciences disagree on how to define it. It can mean to vote or exert influence via a political party. It can also be about getting involved in a citizen’s initiative or a political movement. Political participation can also mean simply clicking an online petition. The spectrum is great and it’s difficult to draw quantifiable conclusions.

Wolfgang Kraushaar Quelle: ScienceImageProject.com / Sacha Hartgers

The big online petition platforms claim they have extremely high numbers of activists. Move.on for example speaks of seven million activists, Change.org talks of 25 million and Avaaz of over 20 million. These figures are staggering and one wonders whether they can be interpreted as “political participation” without further ado.
I would say they are misleading. The difficulty with this assessment is the question of whether virtual participation on the internet can be equated to political participation in the physical, social field. I have my doubts. In the end, there is a difference between going out onto the street or to a gathering, or settling something from one’s desk or via smart phone.

Would you say it is fair to say political activism has become easier?

In this regard, the example of the Arab countries is particularly interesting. The Arab Spring would not have got off the ground without the social media, at least not with such momentum and to such an extent. However, there is also a very salient point: There was social mobilisation after the Mubarak regime blocked all access to the internet. Participant numbers grew considerably – the activity in the social networks would not have achieved what social mobilisation in the different parts of the city was able to achieve.

Do you mean traditional communication here?

Exactly. This simply means that one cannot replace the other. I think this is a really striking example that highlights the illusions that are often linked to internet mobilisation. Many have spoken about a “Facebook or Twitter Revolution” but I would say this terminology is too hurried. Social beings need to go out on the streets and do something with others if a ruler is to be ousted or a revolution triggered.
There is more and more criticism of what has been termed “clictivism” in Germany. People are being warned against believing that a click can change the world. I share this position – I believe the possibilities of the internet should be used but I don’t think one should make do with them alone.

Get Off Your Ass. From Clicktivism To Activism - Judith Schossböck and Alexander Banfield-Mumb (v.l.n.r.) at re:publica 2011; Photo: CC by 2.0 Anja Pietsch - re:publica

Will citizens continue to be responsible in future, with regard to the development of digital technologies?

When it comes to communication possibilities, everything appears to have become improvable in our digital world. That has many positive sides but it’s not completely unproblematic. An enormous marketing apparatus has emerged through the electronic media. We are all customers and almost everything that we do online is observed and evaluated.
These processes are probably irreversible. On the one hand, new potential will come about and there might be more means of exercising influence on processes of democratisation but there will also be great setbacks. I don’t think it’s possible to envisage a clear scenario for the future. We’re in for many surprises.

Wolfgang Kraushaar, born in 1948, read political science, philosophy and German studies at the University of Frankfurt am Main. After completing his PhD under Iring Fetscher in 1982, he embarked on an academic career. Since 1987, he has worked at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS), where he has devoted himself particularly to studying political protest movements in the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR. He is the author of numerous books on the subject.

Anne Thomas
is half-French and half-American but she grew up in the UK. She has a PhD in literature and works as a freelance journalist and translator in Berlin. She is also the coordinator for Gunter Demnig’s “Stolperstein” project abroad.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2013

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