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Digital response

November 19, 2011

Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to answer 10 questions submitted by German citizens via the Internet. Although Merkel calls this dialogue, critics say reaching out via YouTube is no longer innovative.

Angela Merkel in YouTube screenshot
Merkel answered the 10 most popular questions sumittedImage: youtube/Bundesregierung

Rarely have there been so many references to "citizens" in a press release written by the Germany federal government. Citizens submitted 1,790 questions via Internet to Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 10 most popular of which she will answer over a period of three days on YouTube in an attempt to engage in "dialogue" with the German people.

The questions, however, do not necessarily match the priorities of the German government. For example, there were queries about why parliamentarians can decide their own wages, and why there is not a single hour during the month when citizens can submit direct questions to their representatives. Not one of the top 10 questions touched on the eurozone debt crisis.

Virtual dialogue

Answering questions in YouTube videos is not particularly innovative, according to Christoph Bieber, an expert on the Internet with the Center for Media and Interactivity at the University of Giessen.

"In 2011, you can't give politicians a round of applause for this kind of strategy," Bieber told Deutsche Welle.

Youtube screenshot
Media expert Christoph Bieber says the dialogue is still indirectImage: youtube.com

Bieber added that the German government is not really engaging in a "lively and controversial dialogue" because the questions are determined beforehand and the interview with Merkel is recorded - there is no direct connection to citizens.

The videos responses also raise the issue about whether the federal government needs to be answering questions about the legalization of cannabis, which came in at number one on the top 10 list, when the existence of the euro is currently at stake, Bieber said.

He said he thinks it would have been more sensible for Merkel to field questions via the Internet in her role as head of the Christian Democratic Union during a recent party conference.

The blogger Markus Beckedahl, an expert who represents the Green Party on the German parliament's Commission on Internet and Digital Society, said the citizens' dialogue is only simulated since there is no opportunity to ask follow up questions.

"The Internet offers much better possibilities," Beckedahl told the news agency dpa. "In the year 2011, this just seems to be old hat."

Digital shell shock

One reason for the YouTube initiative is the "shock that the established parties have experienced in relation to the Internet," Bieber said. The release of secret information by WikiLeaks, the rise of the Pirate Party and the public outcry over software used by the government to monitor the personal computers of suspected criminals all served as a wake up call for public officials.

Bundestag chambers
Half of politicians in a recent survey said they do not answer e-mailsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Yet many German politicians are still behind the times when it comes to the Internet. Half of the 750 politicians surveyed in a recent study do not answer e-mails. And 45 percent are not registered for social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Merkel, though, does have a Facebook profile and her government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, uses Twitter. The German government also has its own YouTube channel with around 2,600 subscribers.

The US government has been a trailblazer in using the Internet as an outlet for political communication. In April 2011, US President Barack Obama answered questions from people around the world in a live interview conducted by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Although many politicians lack experience with online communication, Bieber said this is not necessarily a problem, adding that he does not believe politicians who have avoided the Internet for years and now suddenly appear on Facebook somehow damage their credibility.

On the contrary, whoever learns and tries will profit. The Internet has long been a normal part of everyday life, and it's time for it to be viewed as a normal field for political engagement, Bieber said.

Author: Nicole Scherschun / slk

Editor: Sean Sinico