Digital elite “German Internet Companies Play a Very Provincial Ball Game”

Professor Michael Haller, media expert
Professor Michael Haller, media expert | Photo (detail): © Kreuzkam/HMS

In USA the digital elite is gradually extending its influence into the sphere of politics. In this interview media expert, Michael Haller, talks about the consequences of this new claim to power and why the situation in Germany is somewhat different.

Mr Haller, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has bought the “Washington Post”. Are his goals noble, does he want to save journalism?

I don’t think so. He is more interested in gaining more prestige in the cultural world. He is still absolutely insignificant in that field and would therefore like to make a name for himself there.

Google promotes the idea that technology is intrinsically good, Facebook has adopted the aim of getting the whole of humanity to connect with each other. Techno-utopianism plays a very strong role in Silicon Valley. Is it not simply a logical conclusion that these companies should also want to strive for political power?

Various forms of media and USA-correspondents advocate this theory. I do not. Institutionalised politics in the classic sense only has one operative meaning for the Internet’s Big Players. The big Internet companies think more in terms of market strength, i.e. influence and power, and, of course, reputation. By buying the Washington Post Bezos has sidled into the world of politics and, by doing so, has culturally upgraded his Amazon business.

In Germany the mentality and the range are different

Jeff Bezos is not the only one to start thinking about his political influence. The books written by Google Chairman, Eric Schmidt, or Facebook’s Managing Director, Sheryl Sandberg, read like political agendas. Where did all these aspirations of the digital elite suddenly come from?

The concept of politics in the USA is different from the European one – when the entrepreneurs take on the role of authors it is mainly to justify their market power. These entrepreneurs have acquired a huge influence with their services and products, they have become global players and therefore, in a socio-political sense, feel the urge to prove themselves to be intellectually sharp and farsighted and fill their brilliant marketing slogans with “content”. They are pleased to be finally able to gain recognition from the intellectual world.

Are German Internet companies similarly striving to politicise the influence they have?

German companies play in a very different league, play a more provincial ball game. Our German-language social media platforms – formerly StudiVZ or actually Xing – had and still have a very limited range compared to the English-language portals. They are cut off from global network business. This is why Big Players like those in the USA have not been able to evolve in Germany. The mentality is also very different – in the USA people have practically no problems at all with their personal rights being violated, provided it involves a commercial undertaking and provided they have the subjective feeling that they are getting some personal gain from it. This unscrupulousness has the aim of continually producing as much traffic as possible, so that profiles can be more easily identified for marketing purposes; it is used, for example, by Facebook to animate its members. It is, however, thankfully not to be found on German platforms – I hasten to add.

No socially relevant ideas

What is the reason for that?

In Europe we still have a certain respect for the integrity of the individual, for the idea of the self-determining individual. American society, however, is becoming more and more schizophrenic in this respect – on the one hand it prides itself in its civil rights and liberties principles – principles that have even guided the country into bloody battles and wars. On the other hand, very many Americans appreciate the fact that they are being monitored all day long via the media, that they are, so to speak, taken by the hand and in effect patronised as if they were little children. They think it is good, because they believe they will benefit from it in some way, get some form of relief.

Do these Internet players then have any great ideas? Could they maybe do a better job than the politicians?

I have not heard of any forward-looking, socio-political ideas that are directed toward the common good. Despite ghost-writers, most of the books written by these billionaires are self-indulgent and generate nothing more than a whole lot of hot air. In the end their good ideas only serve to defend their business models against the legislators and any other opponents – or to further extend and expand their business. Take Facebook, for example, when it gobbled up its competitor, WhatsApp. If the state attempted to restrict the formation of these monopolies, then all the Zuckerbergs and Bezos would mobilise all their customers to start a holy war against the state. And they would no doubt win the war in the name of freedom.

Until September 2010 Michael Haller (b. 1945) was professor for “general and specialist journalism” at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies at the University of Leipzig. Not only did he publish the special magazine for journalists, “Message”, but he also worked for many years for various editorial offices, among others, for “Der Spiegel” and “Die Zeit”.