On Facebook, German government employs a dose of humor | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.03.2015
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On Facebook, German government employs a dose of humor

The German government has finally ventured onto Facebook, attracting 54,000 likes in less than three weeks with a lighthearted approach that is confounding trolls. David Crossland reports from Berlin.

Chancellor Angela Merkel famously suffered an outpouring of mockery after she described the Internet as Neuland, or "uncharted territory," during a news conference in 2013.

The remark compounded an impression that her government was not sufficiently competent when it came to the Web. It didn't even have its own Facebook presence until less than three weeks ago, when the Bundesregierung's page finally went live - 11 years after the social media site was launched.

But the page has quickly amassed more than 54,000 likes, dwarfing the UK government's roughly 11,500 to date, and the press office team behind it has won media praise for showing wit in their responses to trolls and for their readiness to engage in debates with Facebook users.

'Disarmed with humor'

It's something of a PR coup for the government, whose spin doctors keep the site updated with statements, punchy graphics, photos and short video clips. So far, more than 28,000 comments have been posted on the site.

"The government's new Facebook presence delivers a perfect presentation of the work of the coalition," Spiegel Online commented last week. "The chancellor is rendered Internet-compatible and trolls are disarmed with humor."

Scrolling down the page can make for entertaining reading. The staff evidently keep a close eye on comments, answering questions quickly, politely reminding the more abusive contributors to tone it down and generally employing a light touch in their responses. Only vulgar abuse and illegal comments such as Holocaust denial are removed.

"The whole government should be put in jail. Perjury, theft (pension contributions), embezzlement of tax revenues," one person wrote.

"Why are you so angry?" the government responded. "What evidence do you have to support your accusations? Best wishes from the editorial team."

"Hypocrites," wrote one critic under a statement by Merkel to mark International Women's Day on Sunday. "Women in Germany still earn less money than men for the same work!"

"Thank you for the friendly address," came the government's answer, which referred the reader to future plans for equal pay legislation and ended with: "Have a nice week from the editorial team."

"You get on my nerves," wrote another reader.

"Thank you for the delicate remark," the Bundesregierung replied. "Have a charming afternoon."

"Blablabla Blub!" came another comment. "Very constructive," came the response.

Underneath a post about the recent award of the Federal Cross of Merit - the German state's highest honor - one wag commented, "Propose me! I'm your man!"

"We need more information," the government replied. "What is your engagement for the common good?"

"We thought it would make sense to handle unwarranted comments with openness and occasionally with a dose of humor," a government spokesman told DW. "The response so far confirms this view. Besides, we don't react to all 'trolls,' just to selected ones."

He said it was still unclear how many editors, multimedia producers and photographers would be permanently employed by the Facebook team.

Voting by likes

Merkel takes center stage in many of the posts, of course, flashing her trademark coy smile as she visits the Vatican, walks around a factory or stands surrounded by the German national football team.

Monday's posts included a video clip of a football-playing robot greeting Merkel at a Tokyo museum. She attempts to shake his hand but he won't raise his arm. That got more than 4,000 views.

Even a six-second clip of an unseen member of the editorial team wiping a keyboard with a feather duster in the German national colors received more than 40,000 views and almost 1,000 likes.

"The federal press office wants to inform people about the work of the government via the channels that people already use - including Facebook," the spokesman said. "In addition we want to engage people in conversation."

It's a PR boost that neither Merkel nor her government would appear to need at present. The conservatives and their center-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats, have an overwhelming two-thirds majority in parliament, and opinion polls put their combined support at 65 percent.

"We're pleased with the many commentaries and the number of views and the high rate of interaction after the first two weeks," the government spokesman said. "But we're learning every day and thinking about how to get better."

In the future, he said, the Bundesregierung would post more videos of government spokespeople answering questions, as well as more striking images, as these were proving the most popular.

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