German politicians just don′t get social media | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.02.2013
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German politicians just don't get social media

Embattled candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück has managed another gaffe. His unofficial "PeerBlog" has met with media criticism. But, like many of his colleagues, he's using the wrong media to begin with.

Peer Steinbrück does not write his own material at "PeerBlog." Instead, a handful of authors who consider themselves "independent" of the man who is standing as chancellor for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) are the ones who are doing the work.

The site is edited by Karl-Heinz Steinkühler, who is also supposed to have written for the controversial blog "Wir in NRW" ("We in NRW") under the pseudonym Theobald Tiger. That blog played a major role in the 2010 elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, releasing a number of documents that damaged the reputation of then-governor Jürgen Rüttgers, who was standing for the SPD's traditional rivals, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The blog helped the SPD to win that state and form a coalition with the Green Party.

As editor, however, Steinkühler later came under fire when he accepted 300,000 euros ($400,000) in contract work from the SPD after the elections.

(Screenshot: 5. Februar 2013)

The involvement of a contentious blogger/editor has brought criticism upon Steinbrück


According to the "About us" page on PeerBlog, "We asked Peer Steinbrück if we'd be allowed to blog for him," and he gave the go-ahead.

The blog is financed with six-figure donations from anonymous donors, and its authors say it's a prime example of how German politicians can utilize social media. Yet experts doubt that claim.

"That actually has very little to do with social media," said Christian Schirms, director of Concept S Media Agentur, in an interview with DW. His company helps other firms to position themselves in social networks.

A thirties-something man smiles at the camera in a black-and-white photo (Photo: no info)

Lumma wants German politicians to relax with social media

"Social Media means dialogue, meaning eye-to-eye, and in the case of candidate Steinbrück he's not engaging at all," Schirms said.

Nor has the blog accounted for any improvement in the candidate's recent image problems. Online, as well as in print media such as Der Spiegel, reactions to recent gaffes range from derision to bemusement to flat-out bewilderment.

"You just sit there and say to yourself, 'Oh no, not that again!'" Schirms said. "It really is quite clumsy."

Social media for beginners

German politicians in general have had difficulties with social networks like Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus. Not all of them have ventured into the online realm. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared she would not be utilizing a Twitter profile for this year's parliamentary elections. According to Twitter all 100 members of the US Senate are on Twitter; only 41 percent of the members of the German Bundestag are.

"What I see in Germany is that many [politicians] still communicate in the form of press releases," Teresa Bücker, the SPD's social media officer, told DW. "If you want to communicate via social networks, then of course that only makes sense if you're talking to someone else - and not just as using it as one more channel in which to disseminate information about your own work."

Stiff start

Social media expert Nico Lumma also sees room for improvement in the way German politicians use social networks.

"In Germany social media is on the agenda, but what's not really understood is what could be accomplished with social media," he told DW. In the US, social networks played a huge role in Barack Obama's election victories in 2008 and 2012. Both voters and donors were mobilized. Obama's team also used Twitter to lend a sometimes humorous tone to their campaign.

For example, when Clint Eastwood caused confusion among Republicans at their convention by speaking to an empty chair as if Obama were sitting there, the Obama campaign tweeted a picture of the president sitting on a chair that had "The President" written on it. The tweet read: "This seat's taken."

A gray-haired man in a business suitt talks to an empty chair. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Mitt Romney's campaign later distanced itself from Clint Eastwood's performance.

"In Germany there's a lack of casual engagement with social media," Lumma said. "It's all very stiff."

There's a broad swathe of the German population who use Facebook or Twitter and who are waiting to be won over by German politicians.

"With over 20 million people [in Germany] on Facebook, that's no longer a 'youth' phenomenon. That's a cross-section of the population," Lumma said.

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