German politicians are discovering the benefits and advantages of social media in the run-up to the federal election this fall, even though their campaigning is still taking place largely offline.
These days, many politicians in Germany are tweeting, blogging and texting to get their message out to voters. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a big fan of texting, is now even sending video messages.
But are Germany's leaders reaching voters?
Yes, say 37 percent of all eligible voters in Germany and 48 percent of all 18 to 29-year-olds, according to a survey conducted by the opinion research institute Forsa on behalf of the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom). They believe the Internet will have a decisive impact on the outcome of the federal election in September.
These are among the key findings of the study "Democracy 3.0 – Importance of the Internet for the Federal Election Campaign."
"Online communications are becoming increasingly important in politics," Bitkom president Dieter Kempf told DW. "The Internet will have an impact on the election campaign as never before in the history of the Federal Republic."
Communication scientist Felix Flemming at the University of Münster is less convinced. "There may be more politicians with an Internet presence today than four years ago," he told DW. "But as long as their Net offerings are used only by a small group of users, their success will be rather limited." The problem, he noted, is that politicians turn to the Internet to mobilize voters only during elections, adding that "in this way, no structures can really develop."
Before the 2009 elections, German political parties had already begun to shift some of their campaigning to the Internet. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Xing and Facebook have meanwhile become important mouthpieces for politicians, according to Kempf. "If you compare the numbers today with those four years ago, you'll see that they have increased significantly."
Merkel leads the field
Since then, the number of clicks that politicians' Internet profiles have generated has soared, too. In 2009, Chancellor Merkel led the field with 16,200 friends on Facebook and 69,000 on the German university portal StudiVZ – more than double as many as her challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier. And since then Merkel has added plenty more, nearly 245,000 followers in all social media combined. German Minster for Family Affairs Kristina Schröder is in second, followed by Merkel's Social Democrat challenger Peer Steinbrück. But both of these politicians combined have only a fifth as many followers as the Chancellor.
"A majority of the parliamentarians have recognized that the Internet is an important communications platform," Kempf said. And the numbers speak for themselves. According to the social media benchmarking platform Pluragraph, 89 percent of all members of German parliament have at least one social media network profile.
German voters, however, don't only want to see their elected officials with an Internet presence; they also want them to keep an eye on the Net. According to the Forsa study, 96 percent of eligible voters interviewed said data protection is important to them, followed by fighting cyber crime (95 percent) and teaching Internet skills (84 percent).
Bitkom president Kemp doubts this year's general election will be decided by the Internet, although he believes the online campaigns will have more pull than ever. Communications expert Flemming has a different view. "The online election campaigns will have only a minor impact on the final elections results," he said. "The studies prove this."