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How the Internet changes political debate

June 29, 2018

EU summit, government coalition crisis: There is an active political debate going on among politicians and on the internet. Communications researcher Gerhard Vowe tells DW why that is a good thing.

Prof. Dr. Gerhard Vowe
Image: privat

DW: Debate and conflict are fundamental parts of democracy. In Germany these past weeks, politicians  coalition partners at that  have been embroiled in bitter, harsh debate. Do you, as a communications researcher, welcome such entrenched disputes?

Gerhard Vowe: There's a lot is at stake here, including German migration policies. It's an issue that involves so much that a hard debate is needed.

Wouldn't you say the tone has become much sharper?

Let's say that we are paying more attention; we witness the insults more directly. That is related to today's communication technologies, allowing us to read citizens' positions and to closely follow how disputes develop.

Comparing political communication now and in the past, what are the differences?

There's been a dramatic change in political communication. Just think of 1968, the East-West conflict, the terrorism threats; they were all very profound conflicts. Politicians were massively under attack, on a personal level as well.

So this happens in waves, and currently, we are experiencing a wave in which disputes are conducted in a much harsher manner than in the immediate past. In political science, we speak of the political divide between traditionalists and globalists.

Did the internet and digitization jump-start this change?

We face new conflicts, and we settle them differently. And that's where the internet comes in. Political disputes are increasingly moving to digital media.

I wouldn't say, however, that the technology triggered this; it rather offers opportunities. The fact that people use these opportunities and go to the internet for information on politics and to vent their opinions has significant consequences.That starts with the costs. Writing no longer costs a thing! Posting a comment in a forum is free, but more people notice it. One should not underestimate the economic side of things.

Read more: Germany's populist AfD seeks to turn online 'censorship' to its advantage
Do social media influence the way politicians communicate?

Merkel und Seehofer
Angela Merkel and her interior minister: currently an uneasy partnershipImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

They certainly do. The best example is how US President Donald Trump now uses Twitter. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has a stronger focus on Facebook, where it presents its views to the media in a way that the media have to react.

Somewhat simplified on Facebook, limited in characters on Twitter: isn't a debate via social media bound to be very superficial? And how does that differ from disputes in the past?

The norms of an elite that stayed informed via traditional media formats were never general standards of political communication.

Different people always had different means of information and articulation, for instance via tabloids and TV news. They also had their own style of debate, which was often quite emotional.

From there, a lot has moved on to the internet. It has become clear that the established media — the elite media — have greatly lost influence. That creates problems because it shakes up established standards to a certain degree.

Does the media have the power to influence constructive political debate, from the point of view of the people and the politicians alike?

They strengthen the confrontational element in politics and confirm people's respective opinions. That is an important function in the process of forming an opinion.

Does the non-parliamentary opposition play a role in the public debate?

The silent minority has been activated — that is about 20 percent of the population — and that is phenomenal. The fact that this segment of the population verbalizes via social media and then, strengthened, enters the public debate has been the crucial boost toward the politicization we have been observing these past two to three years.

How do you rate constructive political debate today? Some people are quite pleased that they can finally say things that for a long time were regarded as unspeakable.

Of course it is an opportunity for people who have long felt excluded from constructive debate and are now much more present in the media. They are part of political communication.

Read more: German satire magazine Titanic back on Twitter following 'hate speech' ban

Twitteraccount Donald Trump
The US president likes to rely on TwitterImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. D. Ake

That can be risky. Obviously the inclusion of mostly right-wing, traditional positions partially leads to brutalization. I however believe we stand a greater chance of not excluding these segments but of integrating them  instead — while at the same time, we will all have to learn how to deal with each other in times of great political differences.

Sweeping things under the carpet never leads anywhere. It's always better when people express their opinion; you can then talk to the person and clarify what is not within the range of consensus.

What else is needed for a good constructive public political debate?

The basics of a political debate include confronting each other with the essential measure of respect. You also need to be able to perceive the other person's perspective. That generally helps accept certain things because you understand them better than you did before. If we succeed in doing this in the world of politics, then we'll be able to overcome current problems together.

Professor Gerhard Vowe teaches communications and media sciences at the University of Düsseldorf. His research includes examining the effect of social media on political communication.