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Opinion

Opinion: Bots, trolls and populists fighting in the war of information 2.0

Language creates reality. Authoritarian regimes and populists across the political spectrum know that. In 2017, Germany stands on the brink of a radical change in the way the public realm works, says DW's Ute Schaeffer.

What do the Würzburg attacker, outraged right-wing populists in Bautzen, ethnic Germans from Russia protesting a 13-year-old girl's disappearance, and followers of the right-wing "Identitarian movement" have in common? At first glance, not much. But if you look more closely, you will see that all of them get their information from the internet, they network on the web, support each other and radicalize each other there.

Public space in Germany is undergoing fundamental changes. Anything that starts as a tweet or a post online can lead to real violence and has an immediate effect on social unity or even election results in Germany. There have already been plenty of examples of this in 2016, like the deliberately aggressive activities at the German Unity Day celebrations on October 3 in Dresden and the arson attack on a mosque in the same city just a week before the national holiday. Police must now protect German parliamentarians who are critical of Turkish politics. Politically motivated crimes are on the rise and figures show that there have been five times as many attacks on refugee homes as in the past.

More and more opinions are formed on the Web

The election campaign in Germany's 2017 parliamentary elections will show that we stand before a fundamental change in the way things happen in the public realm in Germany. When did people last read a newspaper editorial that everyone was talking about? And what about fundamental debates that provide direction and influence election results – will they still be held at local political party offices or in parliament? Or will political debate be transferred to the internet where mostly rude and inhuman comments without a factual basis will contribute to a war of purely subjective opinions?

You are sadly mistaken if you really believe that these are just random opinions of a minority online or a debate among those in Germany supposedly forgotten by society. Different political movements, like the xenophobic protest movement Pegida, the right-wing extremists, the right-wing "Identitarian movement," the Russian agency Sputnik and different branches of right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) work closely together online. They help each other, beyond national borders. And they are slowly but measurably gaining influence on different media channels. The internet creates stories based on political positions, thus encapsulating motives and terminology.

Internet campaigns create heroes. A great political winner like Trump is just one example. On the other hand, many groups spend time praising the devastating crimes of jihadi attackers as "heroic deeds." They give millions of followers and group members who share such stories the certainty that they will find like-minded people to connect with and that someone will finally listen to them. These spaces make people feel good about being a spokesperson in online communities, a creator of agendas in Facebook groups or on Twitter, as well as in user comments on major news sites.

Politics and media must emphasize values

The agenda of right-wing extremists and right-wing populist activists encompasses basic topics that affect everyone: censorship, freedom of expression, how democratic processes work and the question of how fair things are in Germany. In many cases, the credibility and capacity to act in our democratic processes and institutions are questioned, as are the values of an open and tolerant society.

You can't say it enough. In the election campaigns of 2017, political parties and media outlets in Germany will have to face the challenge of debating controversial issues. Anyone who thinks they can skirt around the subject of values in the upcoming election campaigns is taking the wrong route.

Learning from Trump means learning how to win. AfD makes no secret of this in their public appearances. Even Donald Trump said he himself was a movement and didn't need a party or media. The same goes for undemocratic leaders like Presidents Erdogan or Putin.  They speak directly to audiences and use networks and their massive capability of multiplying content for flocks of users.

Simple language leads to success

"You really should be allowed to say that," demands the AfD on a regular basis in its statements. The party's success is based on simple language and a small set of clear messages. Its main battle cries are developed on the web and then used in political debates. The AfD has created a list of now familiar terminology that reflects their opinions: "lying press," "migrant mob," "national traitors," "Islamization," "ethnic inversion," and "political swinger club." The list will grow in 2017. AfD successfully uses language to gain popularity.

How should all this be addressed? Politicians and media must remain credible. This means that issues or emotions on the internet must not be overlooked or downplayed. The reason why politicians and media exist must be made clear and issues that move people must be dealt with. And politicians must show that they are accountable. It must be made clear that sticking to facts will make a difference, at the latest, after the elections. The race will be lost if people avoid difficult debates that are important for our social and political future or if they simply skirt around the tough questions - it won't work!

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