On divisive political issues, such as Stuttgart's new train station, the Internet is used as a forum for discussion, organization - and even demonstration. Is Germany developing a new culture of digital protest?
Digital agitation can lead to political participation
The night before a polticial demonstration, it used to be that leaflets flew off the presses. Today, the presses are cold - but protest organizers type until their fingers are sore.
It seems political protest has moved to the Internet - where anyone with an online connection can take part, and relevant information is spread at the touch of a button. Cyberspace insiders and Net newbies alike make plans online about how to hit the streets offline.
"In successful campaigns, online mobilization and offline actions are linked," said 27-year-old campaign consultant Julius van de Laar. Van de Laar was the only German to work full-time for Barack Obama's campaign; today he works as a political consultant and is the head of the German branch of the international online network Avaaz.org.
Clearinghouse for causes
Avaaz.org's aim is to help people become more politically active via mouseclick. The website is a sort of clearinghouse for causes, where petitions are constantly being signed, protest actions organized, and polls taken.
Avaaz.org has led a campaign on atomic energy
Currently on Avaaz.org's German page, readers can sign a petition that demands the German government agree to make renewable energy the country's main energy source. In just six days, some 100,000 people signed the online petition.
One case that has been in the headlines a lot lately serves as a good example of how intensely the Internet and political protest are linked. The ongoing debate over a plan called Stuttgart 21, to rebuild the city's main train station into a high-speed line, has people up in arms.
A highly active opposition claims the project is expensive and will damage the environment, while supporters - who have taken to the streets in recent weeks themselves - say the connection will bring more money to the city. And they argue that the 290 palace garden trees that will need to be chopped down as part of the plan can be offset with new plantings once construction is complete.
Activists are intensely divided into pro- and contra-camps. But the protests aren't only taking place on the streets - they're on the Internet as well.
'Stuttgart 21' goes national
On Facebook, Stuttgart 21 is a hot topic: "Kein Stuttgart 21" (NO to Stuttgart 21") has more than 82,000 members, and comment on the NO page tends to get a reply within seconds. The quality of online engagement is variable: expert opinions on security measures in the case of a terror attack share space with folksy "goodnight" wishes in the local Stuttgart dialect: " Guats Naechtle".
Of course, Facebook hasn't completely replaced old-fashioned leafleting. Only now, flyers can be put online for downloading - and are passed out by demonstrators who have organized themselves online as well.
Has Facebook killed the flyer?
Political scientist and networking expert Christoph Bieber says the Internet has provided immense advantages for political organizing.
"It all means that things can be coordinated easily and reach more people," Bieber said. That explains how the Stuttgart protests went from being a regional issue to a national one, in record time.
Like Avaaz.org, the website campact.de organizes political campaigns - and in the case of Stuttgart 21, the campaign is completely digital. Users are urged to send protest e-mails to Baden-Wuerttemburg's Prime Minister Stefan Mappus, demanding a halt to construction and a referendum on the issue. Thus far, 185,000 such mails have made their way to Mappus' inbox.
Can the Web save politics?
The protests even serve to bring new users to the Internet.
"With Stuttgart 21, classic users, but also groups of people with no affinity for the net, are using it," Bieber said. And the inverse is also true: the protester who takes part in the online movement isn't necessarily the same type of person who would take to the streets.
The Net is then a kind of ersatz protest, Bieber says: "There are people who say: I won't go demonstrate on the street, let other people do that. I'll do it online."
Whether or not the Net can help overcome the lethargy that often marks German politics is unclear. But according to Bieber, there is certainly potential.
Real-life activism can take on unusual dimensions - like balloon messages
"It could certainly be that in the next few years, the Net will see more political use." His new book, "politik digital," ("digital politics") addresses the subject.
Van de Laar from "Avaaz.org" agrees. "When used properly, the Internet can be used to increase political participation," he said.
But when it comes to really mobilizing people, he says, the message is still the motor: "Only when you can show how political activity can change the status quo do people get engaged."
Author: Franziska Schmidt (jen)
Editor: Nancy Isenson