In 2017, new elections will be held in Germany. What can digitalisation bring to the election campaign, and where should clear boundaries be set? A discussion with Nadine Schön, spokesperson for the Bundestag CDU/CSU parliamentary group.
iRights.Media: Looking ahead to the 2017 elections, how important will digitalisation become generally, and also in connection with the election itself?
Nadine Schön: In both senses, it will be very important. Both areas will be more interconnected than ever before. In the election, the digital campaign will be at least as important as the conventional campaign out on the street. Digitalisation affects and penetrates all areas of life. In coming years, this will only increase. This is why we have to get to grips with it in detail.
What will the CDU focus on here?
Fundamentally, we want to shape digitalisation so that we limit the risks whilst taking advantage of the opportunities it brings. That means innovative regulation and legislation. Over the next few years, we must act to ensure new digital business models flourish so that companies can be created and develop here in Germany. In all sectors, from health to education, we can make use of the opportunities that digitalisation brings. We’ve made good progress in this direction over the course of this legislative period, but there is still a long road ahead. This is an approach that differs from the position taken by other parties.
In terms of the strategy: are there aspects that you would like to try out? That includes tools used in the election campaign itself.
In comparison to the previous election period four years ago, I am trying out more formats, including an online surgery. As a party, we are putting on more frequent conferences on digital matters. These are open to all members of the party. We will obviously be putting all this to use in the election. We’ve already stated that we will not be using social bots, unlike the AfD [antn.: Alternative für Deutschland, a newly emerging right wing party ]. I think that that would be fatal, because politics has to be shaped by people, not by algorithms posing as people.
That was seen very clearly during US voting. Do you put value on an ethical digital election campaign?
Yes. We are fundamentally of the view that technology or digitalisation cannot be seen as ends in themselves. They can only be used where it makes sense, and where it helps people. I see no use—and no value—in using social bots. Their only purpose is to manipulate people. In my view, even when technically possible, they should not be used.
Are there other digital aspects that you find interesting in the context of the latest American election?
Thanks to the evaluation of personal data in the USA, the election was very individualised. For data protection reasons, it is not possible—nor desirable—for us to use this tool. Also because we wouldn’t want go to someone’s doorstep with a checklist and establish citizen X is, for example, a Bayern supporter who’s been unemployed for three years.
But wouldn’t that be exciting?
Addressing target groups, yes. Creating personal profiles: no. If people are particularly interested in, say, women’s issues, then we want to reach them with our policy on those issues. That is also, I think, in the public interest. But I believe no one wants to see election volunteers delving into the depths of a citizen’s personal biography. We want to reach people through politics, not merely approach them as ‘data points’. That is why it is both right and good to have these boundaries.
It is often said that social networks influence elections by displaying information in a targeted way. Is the so-called filter bubble surrounding social media a problem?
This filter bubble creates a situation in social networks in which people only see information they have already expressed an interest in, and opinions that correspond to their own spectrum of views. That leads to the mistaken idea that one’s own opinion is the view of the majority, and that there are no others. In every circumstance, that is very dangerous. It also annoys me personally, because I can only arrive at a balanced perspective through being able to see differences of opinion. We should discuss this with the service providers to see what the possibilities are. Here, there surely has to be a technical solution. This is perhaps an area where there is no need for legislative regulation.
Digitalisation also means people are able to express themselves online in a way that perhaps they previously couldn’t. That becomes a problem when it comes to insults and hate-speech. What is your opinion on this?
Fundamentally, everyone has always been able to express themselves politically. Today, however, the level of abuse and excessive insults is extremely high. That is an alarming development. We need to ask ourselves as a society: how do we want to treat one another? It is about awareness. It is about social decorum and acceptance of others. These are quite normal democratic structures, for which we have clearly lost the feel, as well as the will to compromise, or the ability to make complex political decisions. This is something that we urgently need to tackle, also where education is concerned. It’s something we absolutely need to work on.
What can be done, then? What are your experiences of hate speech, and how can we deal with it?
Firstly, everyone has to find their own individual way of dealing with it. I have a ‘netiquette’ on my Facebook page. I delete swearwords, baiting and insults. Luckily, I don’t get such things very often. Of course, you have to engage with criticism, and you have to discuss it. That’s also important. The platform operator is also responsible. If certain content represents a criminal offence, they are already obliged to delete it. Here it is important that the structures become better and faster. There have to be places where citizens can go to complain when the system does not work. We are currently discussing whether it would make sense to introduce a processing deadline for Facebook deletions. I consider it impossible that such decisions are left solely in a company’s hands. I don’t want Facebook to decide what is and is not offensive.
The investigative authorities are utterly overwhelmed by cases of this kind. Should there not be more consideration given to how better to process these cases?
Yes, that’s right. The procedures which we currently have are complex, tiring, and often go nowhere. The victims of cyber-bullying are not helped if their complaint must first go through a legal process perhaps resulting in a post taken down only months later. There must be faster, more flexible procedures. More energy should be put into finding other strategies to deal with this. In Germany, for example, we already have considerable experience in the voluntary self-regulation of film, television and computer games. That is what leads me to think about how a half-state, half-company structure could both simplify and democratise the entire process.
In the electoral year of 2017, have you high hopes for anything in the digital realm?
I would hope for a good societal debate about politics and democratic structures. Social networks have opened up the possibility for every citizen to be actively engaged in the process. On my Facebook timeline, there are many citizens who help shape the debate using absolutely brilliant analyses and posts. I’d like to see that sort of thing happening more often, and happening at a younger age, too.
Das Interview führte Philipp Otto.
“Das Netz – digitalization and Society. English edition” gathers writers, activists, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs to think about the developments of our digital life. More than 50 contributions reflect on the digital transformation of society. It is available as a free PDF. Download here!