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Governing on Twitter and others: social media as a political communication form

Opportunities and risks of social media in political communication
Image: © alfa27/ Adobe Stock

Social media: curse or blessing for politics?

Addresses and press conferences streamed live, real-time Q&A sessions on TikTok and Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp channels for citizens to access information at any time – a lot has changed in politics in recent years when it comes to communication with the public. While some politicians have elected social media as the mouthpieces for their political and personal messages, others have already taken a step back, like Robert Habeck, co-leader of the German green party “Die Grünen”, citing hate speech and poor etiquette as the reasons.

The Trump phenomenon: from keeping quiet to blocking

Like no other politician before, Trump used microblogging service Twitter to spout his plans and opinions to the world. And also like no other, he blurred the line between personal and professional life: as U.S. president, he tweeted from his private account like there was no tomorrow, while completely neglecting his official Twitter account (@POTUS) for a long time – until Twitter shut down his private account and he was effectively forced to resort to his official account.

However, it took years for things to reach this point, and by this time the opinions on the microblogging platform and other social media channels had become intensely polarized. Those in charge had kept quiet for a long time before Twitter and Facebook finally pulled the plug and blocked his accounts. The incitement to violence blamed for the storming of the Capitol and the subsequent impeachment trial of Trump made the platforms realize once and for all that there are limits to free speech and what is tweetable.

And that’s where the real risk in using social media for political communication comes in: if it is merely utilized for an individual’s branding, the actual political content and messages will all too easily be overshadowed and even forgotten. Personal branding is easier than ever thanks to social media. After all, personal aspects are ideal for emotionalizing content. A strategy that focuses on thought leadership will achieve better results, since personality and subject matter expertise can be optimally combined.

In Trump’s case, it ended up shattering U.S. society. What’s more, the Republican Party’s reprehensible behavior together with the impeachment trial have been its own undoing and it is now left with the political pieces to pick up.

Opportunities of political communication on social media channels

In Germany, political communication on social media is quite different. Although the social media presence of politicians and ministries is becoming stronger on a national and regional level, the content focuses on actual issues rather than being overly emotionalized and personalized in the style of Trump. Not only can social media channels pay off for companies, but also for people with a political agenda, when you consider how many Germans are active on the various digital platforms on a daily basis according to the ARD/ZDF 2020 online study:

68%
of all Germans over 14 years of age chat on WhatsApp every day.
15%
of Germans immerse themselves on Instagram every day.
14%
of the German population are active on Facebook every day.
2%
of Germans use Twitter every day.

When it comes to political PR, this potential has been recognized and the vast array of digital media available today is fully embraced.

  • The quantitative boost given by social media makes it possible to reach groups of the public that have emerged due to the individualization of communication forms and are hard or impossible to reach using traditional media.
  • The qualitative changes, e.g. real-time communication, user networking, and dialogism, offer new ways of communicating and interacting with civil society as part of political communication.

Digital media present opportunities for political communication, for example:

  • Inclusion of previously unreached parts of the population
  • Effective crisis communication
  • Quick statements (to complement press conferences)
  • Building and strengthening trust

For citizens, the presence of politicians on social media means:

  • Less of a barrier for making contact
  • Greater participation in political debates
  • Better understanding of democratic processes

A practical perspective: social media in political communication

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how politicians and ministries use social media to reach the diverse target groups of civil society on the various platforms.

#1 Crisis communication: how the German Federal Ministry of Health is communicating during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is an enormous challenge in many respects – for politics and civil society alike. The German Federal Ministry of Health has left no stone unturned in its communication relating to the virus and associated measures. In addition to traditional PR strategies, the ministry – led by Jens Spahn – relies on active communication via social media to reach more people with the aim of providing information and education on matters such as the different types of masks.

To promote a better understanding of coronavirus-related issues or unpick fake news that is circulating, a wide range of content is used, including infographics, animated charts, live streams of press conferences on YouTube and Facebook, as well as videos with subtitles and in sign language (accessibility and inclusivity being the key).

 

The Ministry of Health draws on the benefits of a broad scope of digital channels and thus can be reached not only via a traditional hotline, but also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, WhatsApp, and YouTube. So it’s no surprise that Spahn was interviewed by the CEO of TikTok News, Niko Kappe, on the budding platform.

With its extensive campaign to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay, the Ministry of Health has demonstrated that it is moving with the times. Why wouldn’t you broadcast a press conference directly on YouTube or Facebook if it means that you’ll attract people who won’t necessarily switch on the TV to watch it on a news channel like Phoenix or who simply want to view it in their own time?

#2 Building trust and interacting on social media: putting more zest into communication in politics

Politics is made by people, for people. Of course, a cult of personality like we saw with Donald Trump has more of a deterrent effect and is certainly not what you want to strive for. Nevertheless, many people want to find out more about candidates, particularly in the run-up to an election, partly to determine whether they can be trusted. Content that shares something about the personal and professional life of a politician offers a glimpse behind the scenes and breaks with tradition.

A perfect example of this is Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe and Member of the German Bundestag, who not only invites his followers to political events and discussions, but also lets them in on his morning jogging route:

He proved that politics can be fun by inviting Hubertus Heil and Hessian parliament members Karina Fissmann and Torsten Warnecke to his digital political Ash Wednesday:

When the focus remains on political content, political communication can build long-lasting trust and foster interaction. Here, it is essential to find the right balance between relevant content and content that isn’t too personal or even comes across as forced. Users must be given the feeling that they can communicate back and their issues will actually be heard.

Read here to find out how Dorothee Bär, German Minister of State for Digitalization, thinks companies in the digital industry can be more resilient.

#3 Testing election campaign messages

The speed and resonance of digital platforms are also ideal for gauging the popularity or unpopularity of messages. A recent example would be the bid for leadership of the CDU Party, which was vied for by the three candidates Friedrich Merz, Norbert Röttgen, and Armin Laschet. Merz in particular got embroiled in one or two digital shitstorms. Ahead of the party’s conference in January 2021, he spoke positively of a possible coalition with the FDP Party in the context of the Bundestag election, should he be elected as leader.

We now know that this and other statements didn’t go down well. In any case, it was an interesting lesson on how social media can be used to test political communication for an election campaign.

The opportunities and risks of new political communication forms

One of the biggest pitfalls of using social media is equating the discourse on the various channels with the general public discourse. After all, it can only ever serve as a snippet of what’s really going on. Societal mechanisms are magnified on social media, since people who wouldn’t speak up during a face-to-face debate aren’t even physically present in the digital realm.

This means that users are activated in the form of polarization. As a result, opinions in favor or against something muffle or drown out the moderate ones on Twitter and other platforms. But that doesn’t mean that they reflect the overall mood of the population. The best example of this would be all those who are loudly opposing the measures for combating the coronavirus pandemic. As surveys have shown though, they are actually in the minority.

On the flip side of the coin, Web 2.0 with all its possibilities is almost predestined for meeting the needs of citizens on an emotional and event-driven level. Furthermore, social platforms give users the opportunity to interact with politicians, ask questions, provide feedback, and network. As the BlackLivesMatter movement and the #zerocovid campaign have shown, they also make it possible for the public to put pressure on the people and institutions that have the power to do something.

Digital and analog political communication have one thing in common: tact, openness, and staying true to your word are key if you want to gain the trust of citizens. With all that in mind, political communication isn’t getting any easier – if anything, it’s becoming more complex.

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