The internet allows political parties to communicate directly with citizens. At the same time, it can provide a platform or even an amplifier for radical ideas. Katarina Barley explains how the German Social Democrats are dealing with this double-edged sword.
iRights.Media: Just how digital is the Social Democratic Party (SPD)?
Katarina Barley: We are becoming more digital all the time. We have our traditions, which we cherish, including local party branches and working groups, but more recently we have seen a marked increase in our young membership. Naturally, that has an impact on how we communicate. We are fairly present in social networks; I personally put a lot of work into that. That gives us the ability to contact members and interested citizens directly without needing to go through other media. And naturally the election is fought online.
The SPD is a mass party and so it has to speak to all citizens, of all ages. How is that reflected in digital communication?
That is one of the SPD’s greatest strengths and one of the reasons why I joined the party. As a mass party we have to grapple with a massive range of social issues, including digitalization. My parents are 76 and 81, and like many people their age, they are always on the internet. But there are others who have no interest in being online. To be sure, it is easier to communicate with people digitally, but we cannot allow ourselves to shut out any group of people.
The SPD has also taken on Jim Messina, who advised Obama, to work as an election strategist. How is that working out? Has this changed the way that the SPD communicates with voters?
Obviously we can’t adopt the American approach wholesale. But it certainly involves some interesting elements which we can positively exploit. In some senses they are ahead of us in terms of communicating content, both in elections and in other fields. The driving question is, how can you create the widest possible reach? How can you make content attractive?
What does that mean in terms of the federal elections?
A digital strategy is not just about elections. Many people—especially, but not only, younger people—feel shut out of traditional channels of engagement. Lifecycles change; people no longer remain connected to the same workplace forever; they are more mobile and sometimes go abroad. The classic local party model doesn’t work for them. Digitalization has brought about new ways of organising the everyday life of the party.
Do you believe that the structures of local party branches are ready to take part in a digital election campaign?
Don’t underestimate our branches. Many are now being led by young people with a feel for online work. The branches are doing really important work; they are the local multipliers and they know exactly where people are. They do door-to-door campaigning, put up posters, organize events and much more.
My current favourite branch chair is not yet 30, energetic and forward-thinking, but rooted in all the local associations. She signs up about three new members every day and knows exactly how to use social networks. I want to fight against the cliché that branch chairs are all just men in their seventies. That is just not the case.
How relevant is the digital election campaign to the SPD in 2016/2017?
The greatest advantage of the digital election campaign is that it allows us to talk to people about precisely the issues they are interested in, and using the media that they are interested in. And we don’t need any middlemen, any newspapers, any news bulletins. We are able to make contact directly, with no filters. That is very valuable.
And why is the SPD better at digital campaigning than the other parties, and why will the SPD win?
We moved to digital very early on. It is not enough to bring in a couple of IT nerds. You need to be ready for the long haul. If we can manage to link our traditions and values with modern political communications, then that will make for a very attractive and powerful package.
Many citizens are dissatisfied with politics. That includes many people who previously would have been part of the SPD’s natural constituency. They are being recruited by right wing populist platforms. Can digital media be used to reach these people? Or are things going in the opposite direction?
We are living in times of great upheaval. People feel uncertain, as could be seen in 2015 when the arrival of refugees in Germany peaked. In uncertain times, many reach for easy answers. We Social Democrats come from a tradition of enlightenment and emancipation. That means that we have more to say than the people who just want to be against everything. These right wing populists are essentially negative; they’re mostly just anti-this and anti-that. That’s something you can communicate in one sentence. But it takes longer to explain what you’re for. That’s where we need to get better.
Do you know what you want to do?
It is stupid only to appeal to the intellect; you also have to appeal to people’s sense of right and wrong. However, at the same time, negative feelings illicit a stronger reaction than positive ones. Mistrust is easy to create. Trust takes a long, long time to build up. What we also find is that people who write hateful comments are at the mercy of rage. They get themselves and those around them whipped up into a kind of rabid frenzy. But for our people who want to stand up to that, it takes a lot of backbone, because they can find themselves being slandered in the most horrible ways. That’s something I’ve been told by many active Social Democrats. The dangerous result is that some are tempted to give up on online work. And I am militantly against that. And I say: if I remain strongly engaged in the internet, then others will too.
Are there moments when even you say “It’s gone too far”?
Yes. I have filed charges with the police, not many times, but three or four. You have to be able to deal with a certain amount of abuse in politics. But there are limits. I think it’s important to be able to say: I’m not just going to sit back and accept this.
The Ministry of Justice has taken various steps to establish clearer rules for social networks like Facebook. But fundamentally this will not remove the echo-chamber effect.
The internet itself of course is not to blame; it is only the medium. I often say that at the end of the day, internet trolls and purveyors of online hate are not aiming for me as a person but for my office. They are aiming at my politics. They don’t know me. I am, I think, much more open than many other people, in that I express myself personally.
I found the discussion surrounding social bots revealing. These are pieces of software which are programmed to automatically post on particular hashtags on Twitter, for example. The AfD [Alternative für Deutschland, a newly emerged right wing populist party] says, “Of course we use social bots”. That astounded me. I think that they have been doing that for a long time, and very systematically. It is a grotesque hypocrisy to, on the one hand, call out the “lying press” and, on the other, to engage in such programmatic deception. I find that really telling. Their goal is to convince people, “Yeah, that must be what most people think”, and thus to normalize their radical positions. That quickly creates its own dynamic.
When you say that networks and communications should not be left to the cranks—can you really apply that to them?
First of all, these are, overwhelmingly, very cool and calculating people, who are using insults, hatred and intimidation in a very conscious way. So I find the concept of “cranks” in this context to be trivialising.
If there is any substance there that I can engage with, rather than insults, then I can have a discussion. But naturally there are people whom it makes no sense to engage with, either far-right racists with fake accounts, or people where you can see that it’s just a tactic, where they are trying to rope you into something.
But you can’t always just write people off in a sweeping way. I can think of many cases where you find that you’re talking to people who have had bad experiences—with the authorities, with politics, with other people. When they see that you are listening and answering them honestly, they don’t always agree. But at least they say, “Yes, I feel that I am being taken seriously. I don’t need to shout so loud now.” I think that we shouldn’t give up on people like that without a fight.
Interview by 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!