As the anti-Islamization PEGIDA movement gains momentum, Saxony's political establishment is on the defensive. The interior ministry has turned to Twitter to boost support for asylum-seekers in the eastern German state.
Should establishment politicians talk to representatives of the PEGIDA movement? Yes, say conservative politicians in the eastern German state of Saxony. "We need to make a greater effort to enter into conversation with the demonstrators," state premier Stanislaw Tillich said.
In the capital Dresden, where many thousands have taken part in the demonstrations, Mayor Helma Orosz has offered to engage in dialog with the group, whose name stands for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West."
The only problem is, PEGIDA doesn't want to discuss anything. At protest marches, participants are advised not to talk to journalists, who have been largely scathing toward the group. Fearing ambush, the organizers reject invitations to the most important television talk shows and give interviews only very rarely. There was no response to a written request from Deutsche Welle.
Since October, the group has been organizing weekly protests in Dresden against what it describes as the increasing influence of Islam and Islamism on German and European society due both to immigration policies and higher birth rates among Muslims. Most of its members have no previous political background.
In December it issued a manifesto that urged resistance to the "misogynistic, violent political ideology" of radical Islam, "but not against Muslims who live here and have integrated into society." It also called for reform to asylum laws on the Dutch or Swiss model.
Hashtags against PEGIDA
Saxony's Interior Ministry has taken a new approach in response to PEGIDA. "We thought about how we can target those taking part in PEGIDA with information," ministry spokesman Martin Strunden said. For the past two weeks, the ministry has tweeted on issues such as political asylum and the integration of immigrants with the hashtags "#pegida" and "#nopegida" in the hope of reaching people interested in the movement. Hashtags are keywords used when communicating via Twitter that facilitate the search for messages on a specific topic.
The ministry says it is now receiving 10,000 views for its messages instead of the previous 400 - a surprisingly high figure for an account with just over 250 followers.
"Until now, the Interior Ministry Twitter account of has been aimed primarily at journalists, lawmakers and other people in the political arena in Dresden," Strunden said. "Since we started using the hashtags, many others have been turning to us out of private interest."
The Interior Ministry hasn't tried to make its case on Facebook, PEGIDA's main communications outlet. "Comments that don't fit the picture are deleted from the PEGIDA Facebook page," he said. "That makes it difficult." But the ministry, he said, hadn't yet written off the social network as an option.
Tweeting the facts
But what is the government promising from its Twitter campaign? "The ideal situation would be that Internet-driven rumors and false allegations would stop spreading, or at least that we could provide a counterpoint," Strunden said.
Earlier that morning, a tweet was making the rounds that asserted there were more than 500,000 rejected asylum seekers still living in Germany. "That's just plain wrong," he said. "The real number is probably between 50,000 and 100,000."
To provide a counterweight to these assertions, several times per hour Strunden tweets facts, statistics and links to sites with additional information - and responds to queries such as, "Tell us why exactly Tunisians and Chechens, of all people, are being sent to Dresden."
The rise of the PEGIDA movement has put much of the German political establishment on the defensive.
But experts are divided as to the approach they should take to PEGIDA. Darmstadt sociologist Oliver Nachtwey said it was important to address the group's arguments: "But I think it's wrong to legitimize PEGIDA by saying, 'We seek dialog.'"
Dieter Rucht, an expert on social movements in Germany, takes a different view. He says PEGIDA should neither be condemned wholesale as right-wing extremists, nor should the significance of the movement be downplayed. "This differentiation also means addressing specific arguments," he said.
It is indeed a fact that municipalities currently face serious problems accommodating the increasing numbers of asylum seekers. "This problem needs to be faced," Rucht said. At the same time, he said, misinformation that circulated about cushy conditions for refugees had to be debunked.
Rucht said it was necessary to get PEGIDA's representatives to stop being "naysayers" - for example, by asking them what form the integration law the group's 12-member organization team had called for should take. "Once you start such a discussion, it also generates an internal debate - and then this amorphous mass splits into different camps," he said.
However, Rucht said this approach is unlikely to have much effect on discussions on the Internet. "These are often communication communities that provide mutual encouragement, but do not enter into dialog with each other."
This is even more true, he said, when official bodies such as an interior ministry become involved: "A hallmark of the movement is so that their followers no longer trust the political class - and do not pay close attention to what they have to say."