Germany's political establishment has not adapted to the pivot to politics by social media stars. The failure to tune in to younger generations was likely a reason why mainstream parties lost significant votes last week.
Social media stars have pivoted to politics recently to use their platforms to support youth protest movements and demand that German leaders speak seriously to topics important to young voters, such as climate change and free speech on the internet.
"These core issues have been relegated to niche issues," Tyson Barker, program director for digital policy at Aspen Institute Germany, told DW. "Top politicians in the political establishment need to get familiar, or else they'll be perceived as out of touch."
In recent years, the biggest German YouTube stars had largely refrained from politics in their videos, with the exception of specialized vloggers such as Tilo Jung, whose Jung & naiv (Young & Naive) site poses simplified and comical political questions to the nation's leaders. Olaf Böhnke, a senior political analyst with Rasmussen Global in Berlin, told DW that the perceived lack of engagement gave the leadership of top political parties the impression that Germany's youth were, like the YouTubers they followed, largely uninterested in politics.
The Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg appears to have inspired some social media stars when she began her school strikes against climate change in 2018.
"YouTubers are a reflection of younger generations," Böhnke said. "In that sense, German youth were seen to be not very political. Then Greta arrived: She put a finger on something."
Read more: German YouTuber takes on Angela Merkel's CDU
From the beginning, however, German politicians dubbed Thunberg and other young activists out of touch — despite the fact that polls ahead of the elections for the European Parliament found that climate change was the No. 1 issue for 34% of German voters.
The nonresponse to these concerns by the political establishment provoked social media stars to take action. The vlogger Rezo lambasted the climate policy of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their junior coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), in a 55-minute YouTube video released a week before Germany voted in the elections for the European Parliament.
The clip went viral, and, in a joint statement, 70 German YouTube stars explicitlytold voters not to cast their ballots for the governing coalition.
"It is an expression of opinion in the last days of the election campaign, just like any other," CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is often referred to by her initials, AKK, told the German Press Agency. "We have already said our piece about climate protection."
Walloping at polls
The coalition parties sustained heavy loses in the elections for the European Parliament: The CDU and the allied Bavarian Christian Social Union secured a combined 28.9% of the vote, and the SPD only 15.8%. The parties performed particularly poorly with younger voters, who flocked to the environmentalist Greens, giving them a historic 20.5% of the vote.
Instead of announcing an effort to reevaluate the way her party addresses criticism from social media influencers and young voters, however, Kramp-Karrenbauer suggested on Monday that the YouTubers had tanked the CDU's chances of electoral success.
"What would actually happen in this country if, say, 70 newspapers decided just two days before the election to make the joint appeal: 'Please don't vote for the CDU and SPD'?" she said. "That would have been a clear case of political bias before the election."
'This is reality'
Social media exploded with speculation that the CDU leader was suggesting regulating free speech on the internet, forcing her to back off on her statement on Tuesday.
"The current debate is not about constraining free speech," Kramp-Karrenbauer said in statement to the German daily Die Welt. "It's about the question of how communication and political culture are changing through social media."
That is a question that Germany's political establishment is still struggling to answer, Barker said.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's comments, he said, "demonstrated a perception of speech online and political speech that's clearly inconsistent with the kind of democracy that Germany is."
For too long, he said, Germany's political establishment has put off translating its political sensibilities to the digital age — but "this is reality."
"If AKK and others in the CDU and the political establishment are not resilient enough, then they're not politicians for this era," he said.
More than communication
Getting with the times isn't just a matter of style and utilizing new channels of communication, Böhnke said: "It's much more about taking the issues seriously that they're not familiar with. ... What people want is that [the government] gets stuff done — fix climate change, fix digital issues and take our concerns seriously."
Failing to do so can have serious consequences, he added — from the PR disaster and election losses currently plaguing the CDU, to the rise of parties further to the right with more social media savvy.
A recent political analysis by researchers at George Washington University in the United States found that, of the shared Facebook posts that originated with political parties, a full 85% came from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD only secured 11% of the vote in Sunday's elections for the European Parliament, but emerged as the strongest political party in Germany's eastern states — ahead of the CDU.
"It's the same reason why the CDU is still losing to the AfD," Böhnke said. "The thinking is still quite analog."