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May 28, 2009

"Twittergate furore in Berlin as early birdsong reveals poll result!" "Twittergate causes resignations in German politics."

screen shot of Twitter logo.
Up to 32 million members worldwide give vent to their thoughtsImage: twitter

These were the blogs – or tweets – that brought the million-strong social networking tool, Twitter, to the forefront of the German parliamentary agenda. Even if "Twittergate" was in reality more tweet than twitter.

The furore started with two apparently harmless messages typed into the maximum 140-character slot of the US-based Twitter Web site. Except that the tweets of Julia Kloeckner of Angela Merkel's CDU party and Ulrich Kelber of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) came 15 minutes before the results of Germany's presidential elections were made official.

Twitter, which doesn't give out member statistics, is estimated to have up to 32 million users worldwide. Hot on the heels of the other popular networking site ‘facebook,' Twitter offers its members an ongoing stream of global chat, news, tips and, above all, constant connectability.

Most major newspapers and broadcasters display the Twitter logo on their homepages, while newsgatherers now follow Twitter reports in the hope of a quick exclusive or the possibility of monitoring eye-witness accounts. Take the G20 demonstrations: the user asks to follow a specific stream of tweeting and can be part of the spontaneity from the safety of his or her laptop, mobile phone, blackberry and so on.

Celebrity culture can also be nurtured on site as celebrities give a bit by bit account of their day and extend their 15 minutes of fame. Ashton Kutcher, actor and husband of US actress Demi Moore went head to head with US broadcasting giant CNN to see who could get the most twitterers following a tweet. For what it's worth, Kutcher won.

Early announcement

President Horst Köhler
News of the reelection of President Horst Köhler was known sooner than expectedImage: AP

Back in Berlin it is essentially the media that are keeping the story a-twitter, but it was enough to introduce the topic into a meeting of parliamentary elders. These guardians of parliamentary dignity and good conduct have found the breach of conduct distasteful.

According to CSU party member Dorothee Baehr, "the dignity of the Bundestag really suffered. It would have been best if the president of the house had been the first one to actually tell everyone the votes for our own president Horst Koehler and not for the whole internet-media community to know the results before we did."

Baehr refrained from too much critique, blaming the whole tweeting episode on election excitement and carelessness.

Whether the German lower house can take any legal action to stop in-session twittering is dubious. The SPD is considering a ban on its members from sending messages from camera meetings but how this will be effected is unclear.

For most politicians, it is simply a matter of protocol. There are certain things you just don't do.

Twitter and internet chatting are less widespread in Germany than in other European countries but most parliamentarians are no strangers to technology. Well, at least not now, says Baehr.

"Too much twitter"

picture of Deutsche Welle's Twitter logo.
Most broadcasters have a presence on Twitter.Image: http://twitter.com/dw_german

To test the impact of Twittergate, this reporter sent out a tweet testing the global temperature. Six hours later there was still not a single reply to my question whether anyone had anything to say about Horst Koehler's re-election being announced a quarter of an hour early.

Nevertheless, Kloeckner and Kelber had been tweeting from inside a closed session and Kelber went so far as to give out the vote count.

"The count is confirmed: 613 votes. Koehler is elected," he tweeted.

For her contribution, "watch the football in peace. The vote was a success," Kloeckner has resigned her position as parliamentary secretary and apologized.

Tweeting is, according to Baehr, an exciting new tool. People in a position of authority just have to decide when to use it.

"Every politician has to make up his or her mind whether to use Twitter or not," she said. "The number of users one year ago was about 30,000 and now a year later it's 600,000. So of course if you want to get in touch with your voters it's an exciting new possibility. But you really have to think twice about whether you post news or not."

For non-parliamentarians, Twittergate is perhaps less about the dignity of the German Bundestag and more about the spread of information into the public domain. We live in an age where "one small tweet can too much twitter make" but where Twitter may just also help keep censorship at bay.

Author: Tanya Wood

Editor: Susan Houlton