Political online communication The digital grapevine – Facebook, Twitter & co. in the election campaign

Social Media

Social media are becoming increasingly important in German politics. What role will Web 2.0 play in the run-up to Germany’s general elections 2013?

Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has no intention of twittering during the election campaign, and Peer Steinbrück, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), is even alleged to be no great fan of the Internet. As such, the two leading candidates of their respective parties are now in the minority, as a good two-thirds of members of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, regularly use social media. This is the key finding of a study carried out by the Institute for Media and Communications Management at the University of St. Gallen, which examined the online behaviour of members of the 17th German Bundestag. Social media have definitely found their way into German political life, but how important will they prove to be as the election campaign gets underway?

More dialogue on the Web

Though they will play a certain role, they will by no means be as significant as they are in the USA, claims Nico Lumma, one of Germany’s leading social media experts. He says that things on the Internet often snowball in their own particular way – one can raise issues, but one cannot always control what happens next. “This ‘letting go’ is something that Germans find extremely difficult”, says Lumma. “In the US, all politicians have meanwhile realized that they can reach people directly via social media without having to rely on issues being picked up on by journalists, the conventional gatekeepers.”

All this may well change in the forthcoming election campaign, however, as all the parties represented in the Bundestag have set themselves two targets: more direct communication and more dialogue online. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), for instance, is urging its supporters to make suggestions for the coming four years and to engage in discussions – its slogan is “Was mir am Herzen liegt”, which roughly translates as “Issues that are close to my heart”. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is following a similar approach. “Members and sympathizers alike are given the chance to help write our election manifesto online”, explains Thomas Diener, who works in the Dialogue and Campaigns department at the party’s national headquarters. “As of 11 March 2013, we had received 1,091 suggested changes and 6,327 evaluations in the online debate on our 2013 manifesto.”

The right message for every situation?

The SPD and Alliance 90/The Greens are also keen to take advantage of this strength of the social web, and are planning platforms for an exchange and dialogue with their supporters. Daniel Bartsch from the national party headquarters of The Left says: “In planning our election campaign, we made a point of systematically recording, analysing and assessing feedback from social networks and incorporating this into our ongoing campaigns and manifesto debates.”

But which social media play a particular role in the election campaign? Facebook, Twitter and blogs reach different target groups, explains media expert Nico Lumma, which is why it is impossible to generalize and say which one is particularly important. “I believe blogs are essential, however, because they allow people to express and discuss more complex thoughts and opinions. Without Twitter, on the other hand, it is difficult to reach the information disseminators online, while Facebook and Google+ round off the online PR campaign.”

It comes as no surprise then that the political parties are taking advantage of all relevant Web 2.0 platforms. “We place a particular emphasis on the 12 million Facebook users and roughly one million Twitter users”, says Hans-Jörg Vehlewald from the SPD’s central headquarters in Berlin, “we have our own SPD channel which offers videos of the party, and also post content on Google+.” The CDU also has a clear focus on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, that is to say the services with the greatest reach, stresses CDU press officer Christopher Lück.

At the heart of the digital world

Ultimately, the objective of the online campaign is to generate as many offline contacts as possible, says SPD man Hans-Jörg Vehlewald. “For example, by inviting people to attend major events or to watch them on television. At the end of the day, what counts is to have spoken to as many people as possible in person. And that becomes increasingly important as the election date draws ever closer.” Robert Heinrich, election campaign manager for Alliance 90/The Greens, highlights another strength of social media: “Elections are won because people who are convinced of something themselves succeed in convincing others. Social media are the best instrument when it comes to mobilizing one’s own fellow campaigners, partly because a great deal of internal party communication takes place via social media, outside the confines of the election campaign.”

This will be even more true in the future. All parties anticipate that Web 2.0 will become an increasingly important part of political online communication, as more and more people use smartphones and tablets in the future and conventional media such as print, TV and radio lose their reach. For expert Nico Lumma, one thing is quite clear: “Social media are at the heart of the digital world. In terms of politics, this is the reincarnation of something that Johannes Rau always described as ‘Mundfunk’ (i.e. word of mouth/the grapevine effect). Without social media, it will become increasingly difficult to reach the electorate in future.”