The digitisation of politics The new openness

Politics and the internet
Politics and the internet | Photo: © Blablo101/iStock

Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat – social networks are becoming the most important platform for political communication in Germany. Though this is not without its downsides.
 

Perhaps it would not comply with any diplomatic protocol, but a person getting in touch with the German government via Facebook may well find themselves being addressed as “Hi Marco”. This is unusually informal, even downright pally. And sometimes “your pal the government” might even have a cheeky sign-off at the ready, followed by a winking Smiley.
 
And it works. The German government may only have had its own Facebook page since 2015, but it already had nearly 400,000 “friends” just under six months later. That is more than the number of copies most newspapers sell in Germany.

The Internet: the most important platform

This is all part of government spokesperson Steffen Seibert’s social media strategy. He caused a stir back in 2011 when he started tweeting under the name @RegSprecher (an abbreviation meaning government spokesperson). Some journalists were not at all amused when he used Twitter for his first announcement of Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel’s upcoming visit to the USA. Less social media-savvy reporters asked themselves whether they would now have to sign up to social media networks simply in order to keep abreast of what is happening in the government.
 
Since then, the digital world has continued evolving, and these days there are hardly any German journalists or politicians who do not use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. And there are fewer and fewer members of the public who still obtain their information solely via conventional media. The Internet has become the most important platform for political communication in Germany.
 
Politicians from all parties do their best to draw attention to themselves in social media networks. Chancellor Angela Merkel succeeded in this particularly well when she allowed herself to be interviewed by German YouTube star LeFloid in 2015. The video has already been viewed more than five million times – a good way to achieve big impact with little effort.

The culture of debate is changing

The Internet has hugely changed the culture of political debate. Nowadays anyone with an Internet connection can join political discussions: in the various forums of leading news providers and television stations, on the social media pages of the German government and individual ministries, or in direct dialogue with politicians on Twitter. Particularly intensive users include Chancellery Minister Peter Altmaier from the CDU party and SPD Chairman and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. They also tweet back if in doubt.
 
Online petitions are also booming. Since 2012, people have been able to use the website of the German Bundestag – the country’s parliament – to advertise causes close to their heart. If the petition is signed by 50,000 supporters, the parliament’s Petitions Committee has to address the matter in a public session. More than two million people are registered for e-petitions on the Bundestag’s website. There were more than 13,000 petitions in 2015, six of which achieved the required 50,000 signatories. The themes were very broad-ranging, including everything from a ban on arms exports and a complaint about the excessively low wages paid to nurses to a demand that statutory health insurance companies should pay the costs of cannabis therapies.

Masses of hate comments

The downside to all of this new openness are the hordes of trolls, those notoriously bad-tempered fellows and fact deniers with which the Internet is teeming. Forced in the past to meet only in back rooms, the whole Internet is their playground nowadays, and they are increasingly poisoning the culture of political debate.
 
For some years now, SPD Justice Minister Heiko Maas has been attempting in vain to persuade Facebook to consistently delete hate comments. Essentially this is about a clash of two different cultures: the American company takes a rather wide view of freedom of expression, which even encompasses denial of the Holocaust – something that is a criminal offence in Germany.

Self-created “opinion bubble”

The next digital milestone will be Germany’s general elections in 2017. Political parties know that elections are not won on the Internet, but they can be lost there. Election posters and newspaper and television ads still potentially reach everyone, but Internet strategies are aimed primarily at mobilizing the party’s own voters. Many Internet users are content to remain in “opinion bubbles” they have created for themselves, and no longer even notice that others may perhaps think differently.
 
Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a still fairly young right-wing populist party offering an “alternative for Germany”, wanted to resort to a rather new method of agitation for its election campaign: it planned to deploy what are known as “social bots”. These are opinion robots that automatically join political debates on Facebook or Twitter. Disguised as genuine users, the bots analyse and gather private information about the user and disseminate information themselves.
 
The other parties rejected the use of such opinion robots, and the criticism was so harsh that the AfD withdrew its idea. In the US, on the other hand, these bots were an integral part of the election campaign toolkit during the 2016 presidential elections.