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Digital Public Affairs: How Social Media Is Changing Politics

A version of this article was first published in German on media portal Welt.de. To read the original article, click here.

By Axel Wallrabenstein, Chairman, MSL Germany; Lutz Mache and Tobias Heyer

It’s that time again: On September 22nd the German Bundestag is undergoing a rejuvenating cure.

The changes to come after the polls could be even greater than in the past: depending on the outcome of the election, the plenary could grow thanks to the recently reformed electoral law by several dozen seats. According to current estimates, a third of the seats would be allocated to newcomers. Therefore, the parliament will become both larger and younger.

However, the age shift is not only interesting for online photo galleries, page 2-portraits or statistics. The bigger the generation change, the stronger will be the influence of the Internet on politics: The digitization of society has a tangible impact on the way MPs make politics and how they communicate with their constituents. And this is not only relevant for the Berlin sphere.

Pic courtesy:  European Parliament via Flickr

Pic courtesy: European Parliament via Flickr

Why Yellow Press Isn’t Enough Anymore

For many politicians the Internet was a medium, which had to be taken care of their staff. Assistants would publish press releases on the politicians’ websites and print important emails for their daily briefings. Younger MPs have realized that many older parliamentarians miss the potential of the Internet but could benefit from it with a little extra help.

An example of how young talents try to coach less experienced colleagues for the digital age is the Social Media Guide offered by Peter Tauber (@petertauber) a conservative representative from Gelnhausen. Tauber wants to take his colleagues fear of the digital world and show them how to use digital tools – it is said that even Chancellor Merkel is interested in his advice.

Digital Natives Are Gaining Influence

The Internet plays a very important role in the daily routine of younger MPs: they never had concerns about the social web – they grew up with it. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are naturally being used by them even in campaign-free times. Therefore, this forecast is obvious: In three or four election periods each Member of Parliament will be a digital native and will have internalized how to use the tools of the social web. The old school type of the “offline politician” is threatened to die out.

Debates about laws or reforms will be different in the future when it comes to the tools that are being used to exchange ideas. Politicians will judge the digital sphere differently: The less its power is perceived as dangerous, the more likely an effective discourse will emerge. The quality of legislative work will benefit from this development. Moreover, lobbyists in companies, associations and non-governmental organizations must be vigilant about their point of contact with the digital world in order to communicate their concerns on par with the politicians. Eventually, people will debate about all kinds of laws and drafts online – not only about net politics.

Having a look at the “most shared”-sections of today’s news sites gives a good impression about what’s moving Germany. In addition, the Internet accelerated the globalization of news: Incidents in other countries or even continents are being shared in real time and create new discourses.

Public Affairs Professionals Are Not (yet) Convinced

Up until now, the professionalization of Berlin lobbyists regarding digital communications has not yet progressed far enough. Digital companies that are affected by net politics are ahead of the game. The major social networks or various telecommunications providers are pioneers in Germany, connecting online with offline communication. They use the new possibilities of digital public affairs to provide information via online channels, observe debates on the net, handle campaigns and of course conduct networking with their key stakeholders. However, Public Affairs managers of other companies and associations often only dare cautious attempts, but due to their lack of experience, they often return to passivity after their halfhearted tests.

In its annual Public Affairs Survey, MSL Germany interviews public affairs executives and goes into trends in digital political communications such as the use of social media tools. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • only 26 percent of communication managers of companies and associations are permanently active in the social web,
  • 20 percent conduct project-related social media communications,
  • over a half of them are not represented.

The Cultural Shift Is Changing How Policy Is Made

The times of television and print were times of one-way communication: Politicians gave statements and journalists decided what they would comment, write about and finally publish. The voters only received the information and had rare opportunities to express their opinion to the decision makers.

In times of the social web, dialogue is everything: citizens and well-organized activists can call and address their MPs directly and publicly. Politicians are increasingly turning themselves into media and decide what content they want to promote.

Heavy Twitterati such as Volker Beck (Parliamentary Secretary of The Greens), the net politician Lars Klingbeil (SPD) and the judiciary expert Manuel Höferlin (FDP) are not only online broadcasters, but take active part in discussions.

These online pioneers attack their political opponents directly or defend their decisions. Through this the image of the approachable politician got a new component: They are also more tangible for lobbyists. They can access important information faster, such as results of committee meetings, which are immediately published online. They can also contact stakeholders online and are no longer limited to traditional networking in parliamentary dinners or at certain events of the political scene.

Learning From The Ancillary Copyright Law

A prototype for the participation of lobbyists in the digital dialogue was the legislative procedure for the ancillary copyright for publishers: Internet activists, politicians of all parties and representatives of the involved companies left the backroom and gave an unprecedented reaction with countless blog posts and on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. As the debate got into the major daily newspapers, the online debate had already reached its peak.

The fact that the ancillary copyright has been discussed so heavily online was no coincidence. The stage for political debates and legislative debates has increased with the immersion of the political sphere into the social web. In future there will be more and more political controversies in which most of the discourse happens online.

In the next Parliament, we will see similar debates like the ancillary copyright. The intensity will increase as more and more skilled politicians, stakeholders and citizens gain a foothold in the social web. Many activists have already established powerful standings in consumer protection issues.

Supposed niche topics encounter much more interest online than before: they are no longer filtered by journalists and limited to 6-line messages. In addition, the barriers to participate in the discourse are much lower. The election on September 22nd will be a further step in the consolidation of the social web and the political stage.

This article was originally published in German on Welt.de

Follow the authors on Twitter for more: @walli5, @tobiasheyer and @lutzmache

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