The evolution of the digital election

Foto: U.S. Department of the Interior, Susan Stiles (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The US election is over, but the next election is always around the corner. In 2017 German citizens will be voting for a new parliament and a new chancellor. What can Germany learn from the US, and what would we be best off ignoring?

Even if Brexit and Donald Trump have made us more circumspect about making predictions, one forecast can be made that is as much of a sure thing as Donald Trump’s next furious tweet. Political billposting will still be dominated by posters and placards in the streets and squares of Germany’s cities and towns.

The German “placard forest” is in good health

Parties and campaigners will still spend a large portion of their budgets and their (creative) energies in the upcoming 2017 election on images and slogans for posters, discussing them and agreeing on them, then putting them up and taking them down. The posters certainly fulfil one function: they remind us that an election is coming up. Apart from that, their slogans and images are interchangeable. And even if the Berlin daily paper Tagesspiegel recently ran the headline “Election posters are losing all meaning”, another jungle of posters and placards is inevitable.

Learning from the USA? Learning from Obama!

All this happens even though we Germans have for many years been watching the heavily digitally-defined elections on the other side of the Atlant­ic. Party strategists and electoral consultants have long been making pilgrimages to the USA in order to get a closer look at how political campaigning is done there. What haven’t they found? Posters. If they were to see any, their best chance would be in the suburbs, where some supporters like to put up signs in their front yard, purchased in their candidate’s online shop (where they also can conveniently share a little data with the campaign organization).

When Barack Obama ran in 2008, first in the party primaries against Hilary Clinton and then against John McCain in the race for the White House, many people talked about how he owed his victory to Facebook and other social networks.

Like Roosevelt (radio) and Kennedy (TV) before him, his team made use of a new medium in order to reach and mobilize new groups of voters. From the outset Obama’s campaign strategy was a hybrid masterpiece: his strategists used the website mybarackobama.com as a central organising network, effective online and offline. Digitally mobilised supporters became local grassroots activists, knocking on millions of doors.

After he won, preparations immediately began for the next election in 2012. This state of permanent electioneering created a self-feeding data machine, locked in a kind of perpetual motion. Every “like” on Facebook was a new data point, helping to refine the voter profile and prompting new, micro-targeted action: a donation email, a Facebook advert, or a home visit from one of Obama’s army of volunteers. Additionally, team Obama used a predictive modelling tool on a rolling basis, to constantly play and re-play the election, in order to decide on the fly which states and electoral districts needed money and resources.

Nothing new in 2016

And 2016? This year didn’t bring much new to report in terms of digital campaigning strategies in America. Rather, there was a certain sobering-up regarding the influence of big data. With hardly any professional help at the start of his campaign, Trump defeated all his opponents, even though they were able to call on apparently experienced digital strategists. Trump only later brought professionals from Cambridge Analytica on board, in order to develop a target-group-oriented database. This company had previously been working for his rival Ted Cruz—but failed to hand Cruz a victory in the primaries.

The use of social bots also made headlines. Two separate studies by Oxford University and the University of South Carolina looked at how bots were able to massively distort opinions on social media. Hundreds of thousands of bots sent out millions of tweets during the election, with pro-Trump bots outnumbering pro-Clinton bots by about 4:1. Bots sent out up to a third of all pro-Trump tweets (in total about 20 percent of the overall Twitter traffic connected to the US election came from bots).

After the vote, there was a lot of dis­cus­sion on the influence of so-called Fake News. The term refers to con­sciously fake, outdated or totally out-of-context news reports which are often shared on specific Facebook pages. Shortly after the vote, the online magazine Buzzfeed showed how these reports were shared much more widely on Facebook than articles from serious news outlets like the New York Times. And if a plainly fake story like “The Pope Supports Trump” was shared more than a million times, this is no longer simply a symptom of living in an opinion bubble, but also a major challenge for the democratic opinion-forming process.

So what can German voters learn from America?

Bots here, doubts about big data there. Of course there are still things that Germany can learn from the US.

Data: because of legal regulations, a data-driven election campaign with dedicated micro-targeting would not be possible in Germany. And that’s a good thing. However, it is possible to do a lot more to gather in data from supporters or interested citizens who voluntarily offer their information, in order to exploit “push effects” for information. Party websites now at least offer newsletter subscriptions or options for online fundraising. But this often stops at the state level and is frequently limited to the websites of individual candidates. Likewise, the targeting possibilities available, for example on Facebook or Google, are often not fully utilized. Naturally, such organization costs money and this has to be budgeted into the overall campaign, but too often resources are still squandered on printing posters. Likewise, so-called social listening, i.e. the analysis of conversations on social media, can be used to complement traditional opinion polls, in order to determine the public mood. After all, in 2016 classic polling—in the cases of Trump or Brexit—fell wide of the mark.

Building reach: By now all parties and almost all politicians in Germany are active on social media. Thanks to his large social media reach, Donald Trump was able to dominate debate and mobilize his supporters in the US. On Twitter more than 16 million people follow him, and almost the same number on Facebook. Clinton has a similar reach. By comparison: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has around 2.5 million followers on Instagram and Facebook combined. With that she leads the field in German politics by a wide margin. Sigmar Gabriel, Vice Chancellor and chairman of the Social Democrats, has around 200,000 fans/followers. The Youtuber LeFloid, who interviewed Angela Merkel 2015, has two times more fans and followers than Merkel across four channels: Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Of course, these figures are an indicator for popularity—younger target groups in particular can often only be reached via social networks. Put simply, more effort should be invested in the development of social media channels.

Content: Obama and Clinton, Trump and, yes, even Sarah Palin all understood the special power of images on social media. Good visual content hits home, speaks to people, and gets shared. Exceptions prove the rule, but in German politics there is a lack of convincing visual content. Looking at parties’ Youtube channels reveals the same pattern: politician X or Y stands in front of a camera and speaks into it. While there is interest in such content, it is often limited to just a couple hundred users. The rule here: less is often more.

Mobilising multipliers: In the US election, multipliers with strong social media outreach—musicians, bloggers, athletes—helped their favourites’ campaigns. A majority of these “influencers”, many of whom could individually reach a double-digit percentage of young voters, supported Hillary Clinton—and she clearly won (as Obama did) among young voters, of whom over a third get all their political information from social media. Germany also has a number of influential public figures in this mould, but until now they have played no role in party politics. Obviously there is potential here, as shown for example by the #YouGeHa initiative. With this initiative, a group of well-known Youtubers took a stand against xenophobia and Pegida (a German nationalist, anti-Islam, far-right political movement) and reached millions of users with their videos.

Mobile: In the 2016 American election “Mobile first!” was the watchword for online campaigning. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are used first and foremost on mobile devices. Thus, content has to be optimized for smartphones, while communication has to take place almost in real time, so that it can be heard and found. In Germany, it is clear that the potential here is being underutilized. Whatsapp in Germany has more users than Facebook. And there are already some members of the Bundestag who are starting to offer citizen consultation hours and newsletters via Messenger.

Our hope for #BTW17 can be summed up as follows: an exciting digital campaign with good content, but without chatbots and fake news. And a much thinned-out forest of placards.


“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!

Adrian Rosenthal & Axel Wallrabenstein

Adrian Rosenthal is Head of Digital & Social Media for the communications agency MSLGroup Germany—and has worked for amerikawaehlt.de for almost 10 years, looking at online campaigning in the USA.

Axel Wallrabenstein is Chair of MSLGroup Germany and consults on public affairs, political communication and crisis communication. Wallrabenstein was previously spokesperson of the Berlin Senate for Science, Research and Culture, and spokesperson for the Interior Ministry of the State of Saxony.

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