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Entre communautés et mobilité : une approche interdisciplinaire des médias

 | 
Serge Agostinelli
, 
Dominique Augey
, 
Frédéric Laurie

Web 2.0 in political party communication – structural changes in Germany?

Barbara Witte, Kirsten Rautenberg und Claudia Auer

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INTRODUCTION

1Election campaigns increasingly take place on the Internet. With Web 2.0 political parties gained technical possibilities that let citizens participate in political decisions with the aim of implementing a deliberative democracy and (re)gaining legitimization.

2Media and communication research in this respect, examines the implications of these new technologies for changing of the public sphere. Habermas wrote about the structural change of the public (cf. Habermas 1990) and it is possible that an increasing use and application of Web 2.0 applications will trigger some kind of second structural change that is characterized by a series of consequences. What these consequences look like is still a matter of speculation. The scenarios range from euphoria to dystopia. One common suggestion is a re-democratization of public spheres (cf. Leggewie/Bieber 2003; Welz 2002). Opposed to that are empirical investigations regarding fragmentation and emerging knowledge gaps (cf. Bonfadelli 1994; Dahlberg 2007). However, it is also possible to specifically consider the communication conditions underlying the situation and the suggestion of a “linguistification” of these conditions (cf. Yang 2008; Egloff 2002). In terms of scientific engagement, the opposed empirical evidences suggest turning away from one-sided perspectives. They have their justification, but might obstruct the analytical perspective. Consequently, the new structural change of the public sphere might simultaneously be regarded from the perspectives of fragmentation and re-democratization. If so, it is then questionable how these two perspectives interact. Are there any offers which show that political parties are turning to deliberative democracy? And how do the parties implement it? Do they just refer to their own party or do they offer Web 2.0-applications that go beyond that?

3Research on how citizens use Web 2.0-applications and with what effect (research on media use and impact) already exist (cf. Bräuer et al. 2008; Gscheidle/Fisch 2008; Zerfaß et al. 2007; Vowe et al. 2007; Krueger 2002; Bimber 1998). How Web 2.0 can be applied in political communication not only in a theoretical sense, but also how political actors such as political parties actually utilize it, has been little investigated until now (cf. Brunauer 2008; Albrecht et al. 2008; Ward et al. 2003; Gellner/Strohmeier 2002). Therefore, the present paper examines the extent to which political parties actually applied Web 2.0 in their political online communication in 2008 and in the beginning of their 2009 election campaigns (May 2008 – May 2009), and what this means for re-democratization and fragmentation. Since the year 2009 is a so-called “Superwahljahr” (super election year) in Germany (there are four important elections: European elections, federal elections, state elections, and local elections), many changes are expected on the political websites due to the election campaigns. This is particularly true since German politics has seen how successful U.S. president Obama was with his internet election campaign and what importance the internet has meanwhile gained in media discourse. Even though American politics is not transferable to Germany, in their election campaign plans the German parties to a great extent orient themselves using the American role model (cf. Bosch 2008).

THEORETICAL BACKGROUND

Setting the context – The German political party system

4In analyzing the application of Web 2.0 by federal political parties in Germany with respect to questions of legitimization and participation, the German party system and its recent developments have to be taken into account.

5The German Federal Republic is a parliamentary representative system that has strongly set out in writing a democracy predominantly reigned by political parties, what political researchers call a “party state”: Apart from the constitution and the Basic Law, the rights and functions of political parties and fractions are fixed in the Political Parties Act, through the electoral law or the Broadcasting Laws, and within the regulated participation of political parties in the Board of Directors (cf. von Alemann 2003: 81). The fundamental basis of the German democracy, however, is stipulated in Article 20 of the Basic Law, which states that the authority of the state derives from the people and is exercised through elections and specific legislative, executive and judicial bodies (cf. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2002).

6Grounded in the sovereignty of the people and in the normative functions of political parties that are stated by the Political Parties Act, the political party communication is to fulfil several tasks: Political parties shall participate in the formation of the political will of the people (Article 21 of the Basic Law) and in the therefore crucial process of manifold and daily interplay with the formation of political will within state organs (cf. Bundesverfassungsgericht 85: B I, 1). They shall encourage and deepen political education for enabling citizens to participate in the political process (cf. Gesetz über die politischen Parteien, §1 (2)). Their political communication thus has the aim of thoroughly informing in order to reduce the complexity of political issues and to ensure decisions and mobilization. Only then the communication is the “continuing active interrelationship between the people and the state institutions” (Gesetz über die politischen Parteien, §1 (2)) as stated in the Political Parties Act. Sarcinelli even concludes that the sole core task of political parties is the «creation and maintenance of communicative connections between citizens (base) and political leadership (elites, representatives)» (Sarcinelli 1998b: 697, own translation).

7However, their task is not restricted to the formation of the political will, but also encompasses its implementation: In one of its verdicts, the Federal Constitutional Court labels political parties as the “mediator through which the political will of the citizens can also be carried out in-between the ballots” (Bundesverfassungsgericht 44: II, 2, own translation). By that, the court allocates another crucial function to political parties: They shall make collectively binding decisions “in the name of the people”. The Federal Constitutional Court even refers to “feedback” in that context (cf. Bundesverfassungsgericht 85: B I, 1, own translation). As a result, the sovereignty of the people, combined with the normative tasks of political parties, makes them to the highest degree dependent upon assent and legitimization.

8This fact is strongly stressed by the latest developments the German political system is faced with. In the political process, citizens take a crucial status that goes beyond the one-time exertion of sovereignty in form of the decision about power or no-power in the election: As party members they commit to a political party in the continuous struggle for power – be it as election campaign aide or a multiplier who upholds the interests of the political party and carries it into society, or by staffing political positions. They thus contribute to the capacity of the political party and to the stability of the political system as a whole. In recent years however, political parties have been faced with a negative quantitative and qualitative transformation of the electorate and the politically engaged populace. The following relevant processes should be mentioned at this point:

  • 1 In 2009 the participation at the elections was again around seven per cent lower. 70.8 per cent of (...)

9Long-term election statistics show a decrease of participation in the federal elections. The lowest turnout, with 77.7 per cent participation (cf. Statistisches Bundesamt 2006: 158), was recorded in the 2005 federal elections1. “The party of non-voters is in all “participatory democracies” the only political party that can record solid growth” (Beck 1993: 219).

10Simultaneously, the voters’ behaviour is becoming increasingly flexible (cf. Beyme 2001: 330; Strohmeier 2004a: 60f.): The percentage of swing voters increases; the amount of loyal voters decreases.

11Analogous, the membership figures decrease continually. Whereas in 1990 3.8 per cent of the eligible voters were affiliated with political parties, in 2004 it was less than 2.5 per cent (cf. Statistisches Bundesamt 2006: 642). As a result, the political parties can no longer keep up with their recruitment function.

12Apart from the quantitative transformation, the political system is also faced with qualitative changes that find their statistical expression in the quantitative transformations: The partisan ties erode and the party affiliations loosen. These processes are labelled “dealignment” (cf. Gluchowski et al. 2001: 184). Additionally, the trust in political parties dissolves. According to a study conducted by Infratest dimap, it decreased from an already meagre 25 per cent in 1998 to 14 per cent in 2006 (cf. Infratest dimap 2006: 11).

Legitimization and the principle of deliberative democracy

13Legitimacy is a fundamental theoretical category of democratic political communication as it ties the validity claim of political leadership to a communicative justification act (cf. Sarcinelli 1998c: 253). It “consists of an empirical component (public trust and support) and a normative component (justifiableness according to norms, values, traditions)” (Meyer 1999: 619). Thus legitimacy is both the determinant and the resultant of political communication (cf. Sarcinelli 1998: 254). This is reflected in the heuristic approach of input and output legitimation suggested by Scharpf (1970). The democratic input is based on the idea that legitimation and “collectively binding decisions should originate from the authentic expression of the preferences of the constituency in question” (Scharpf 1998). The democratic input consists mainly of three parts: (1) the authorization of power holders, (2) responsiveness in the exercise of power and (3) the accountability of power holders (cf. Meyer 1999: 619). The democratic output refers to the idea of "government for the people which implies that collectively binding decisions should serve the common interest of the constituency” (Scharpf 1998).

14The statistical trends presented above support the conclusion that the legitimization of German political parties is eroding. This process has been called “crisis of representation” (Hayward 1995) or “Political Party Crisis” (von Alemann 2003: 187) and Wolfgang Thierse, Vice-President of the German Bundestag, labels it “Stander-by Democracy” (Thierse, quoted in Bode 2007). One explanation for these developments can be seen in the lack of responsiveness of the political establishment (cf. Leggewie/ Bieber 2003), one part of the democratic input. Although the Federal Constitutional Court refers to “feedback” (cf. Bundesverfassungsgericht 85: B I, 1, own translation) in its verdicts, the mass media have manifested a hierarchically structured one-way communication: The political party speaks, the citizens listen – despite the fact that civil participation in the exercise of sovereignty is one of the constitutive features of German democracy (cf. Gabriel/Brettschneider 1998: 285). In order to first and foremost re-gain input legitimation (see above), a discourse is needed between the political leadership and the citizenship as well as among citizens themselves. This idea is mainly referred to by the concept of deliberative democracy.

15The concept, coined by German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, describes a public sphere where all citizens discuss public concerns with rational arguments. At the end of the discussion, a reasonable public opinion evolves that constitutes the basis for all political decisions (cf. Habermas after Gerhards 1998a: 268). It is the public sphere that is the carrier of public opinion (cf. Schenk/Döbler 1998: 143) and with that it is of great importance for political communication. In a mass democracy where direct political influence of the citizens is rather limited (cf. Sarcinelli 1998a, p. 436), the public sphere fulfils the function of an intermediary system (cf. Gerhards 1998a: 269) that mediates between citizens and political actors and offers a platform where they can enter into discourse. In a media society the public sphere exists mainly in and through mass media (cf. Gerhards 1998b: 694). But the mass media have turned the public sphere into a «mass media public sphere» with the result that “the public sphere would be dominated by well organised collective actors (interest groups and political parties), not by the audience of the potentially affected citizens themselves” (Habermas after Gerhards 1998a, p. 272). As a conclusion, the mass media failed at their task of supporting such communicative action. Consequently, other actors are asked to fulfil this task.

The cyberpublic and the fragmentation debate

16In recent years a shift has occurred as mass communication is increasingly placed into pre-medial areas such as weblogs or social online communities (cf. Saxer 2007, p. 89). The discussion of the effects on democracy is two-dimensional, concentrating on effects of engagement and fragmentation. One of the common suggestions is a re-democratization of public spheres (cf. Leggewie/Bieber 2003; Welz 2002). These “cyber-optimists” (Jensen et al. 2007; p. 41) are of the opinion that the Internet has positive effects on engagement and helps to mobilize people who are otherwise not engaged offline (Boulianne 2009; Sclove 1995; Budge 1996). The buzzword E-Democracy refers to the supposition that the modern web-technologies strengthen the political participation and the communication between citizens and the political leadership: «Online information seeking and interactive civic messaging – uses of the Web as a resource and a forum – both strongly influence civic engagement, often more so than do traditional print and broadcast media and face-to-face communication» (Shah et al. 2005: 551). In contrast to that, other researchers find empirical evidence that “the Internet currently does little to expand political mobilization to new types of individuals” (Krueger 2006: 772) and that it rather tends to reinforce the same structures that determine political practices offline (Bimber 1998; Krueger 2006). This is supported by empirical investigations into emerging knowledge gaps (cf. Bonfadelli 1994; Tichenor et al. 1970). Rather than reaching disengaged publics, mobilisation efforts disproportionately reach the already politically engaged and those with a higher socioeconomic status, the latter being a predictor of internet skills (Abramson/Claggett 2001; Krueger 2006). In consequence, a “Digital Divide” is added to a “Democratic Divide”.

17The second central discussion topic apart from mobilization effects of political online communication is the process of fragmentation. With the Internet and Web 2.0 applications, a “multimedia, multi-channel communication society” evolves (Kamps 2002: 104) that fragments the public sphere into part-publics (Habermas 2008; Witte 2008). “Thus, the existing national public spheres seem to be rather undermined” (Habermas 2008).

18The fragmentation of the cyber public directly leads to questions of “discursive contestation” (Dahlberg 2007: 827). On the one hand “the internet has been seen as offering citizens the opportunity to encounter and engage with a huge diversity of positions, thus expanding the public sphere” (Dahlberg 2007: 828; Döring 2003; Blumler/Gurevitch 2001). Some authors, on the other hand, argued that people discuss (political) issues in rather homogenous groups with like-minded others, thus avoiding different viewpoints (Sunstein 2001). Dahlberg (2007) argues that «the public sphere is expanded by expanding discursive contestation and particularly by expanding contestation of the boundary of dominant discourses» (Dahlberg 2007: 836). The expansion of contestation however requires two prerequisites: «first, multiple and vibrant spaces of deliberative discourse (intra-discursive contestation) outside the dominant; and second, inter-discursive contestation (especially of dominant discourse) leading to openings and movements in discourse» (Dahlberg 2007: 836).

19However, as Habermas states, these prerequisites are not yet met: “The Web offers the hardware for de-localisation of condensed and accelerated communication, but spontaneously offers nothing to oppose the centrifugal tendency. For now, the functional equivalents for the structures of the public sphere are missing in the virtual environments that re-collect the decentralized messages, select them, and synthesize them in a revised version” (Habermas 2008: 161f., own translation). Considering the legally fixed function of political parties in Germany (see above), these public arenas should also be offered by political parties themselves. Whereas extensive research is conducted on the effects of internet use on political engagement and political information (see above), less research has been conducted on the communicator. This paper therefore makes a significant contribution to depicting the online engagement of political parties and thus contributes to the “internet-effect-discussion” from a communicator research perspective.

20Taking together the considerations about the latest negative developments in German political engagement and the questions about legitimization and fragmentation, the following questions arose that constitute the basis for the study: Does the online communication of the federal political parties of Germany offer applications that hint at a development towards a deliberative democracy?

21Which Web 2.0-applications are offered on the websites of the federal political parties in Germany?

22Do the federal political parties offer web-applications that extend beyond simple references back to the own party, and that thus allow inter-discursive contestation?

METHOD

  • 2 A new article will be published late 2010 analyzing how political communication changes with Web 2 (...)

23The research project “Future of the public sphere – the public sphere of the future” analyses changes of the public sphere. To answer the questions raised, a study of the German federal parties’ online communication was conducted. The study included the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and The Left (Die Linke). The entire study will be completed in October 2011, but on the basis of partial results, this article can already report on tendencies in the parties’ use of Web 2.0 in the so-called “Superwahljahr” 2009 (super election year 2009)2.

24Basis of the study is a quantitative examination of the political parties’ websites that aimed at recording predefined Web 2.0 elements in order to make statements regarding the usage of the possibilities of Web 2.0. The Web 2.0 applications were selected by means of a pre-test and were continuously amended in case of changes on the examined web pages. Of interest were the individual elements, not the specific content of the websites. The method of content analysis, which captures the “formal and content-related characteristics of large amounts of text” was therefore not suitable in this case (Brosius et al. 2008: 143, own translation). It was rather the “supply structure of web pages” (Roth 2005: 61, own translation) that was analysed. However, inclusion of all elements would not be goal-oriented. Therefore, only selected elements relevant to the research questions were included: The categories for the analysis were developed on the basis of the Web 2.0 principles openness, personalization, interactivity, participation and multimedia, as well as on the enhanced possibilities of information and relationship management (cf. Schmidt 2006: 174). In view of the goal, the result was a raster of the categories relationship management and information management to which the principals were assigned as subcategories. The concrete elements of the subcategories on the one hand draw on the research of Gellner/Strohmeier (2002) and were on the other hand generated by a random examination of internet pages of different German federal and state parties, as well as with consideration to established Web 2.0 applications.

25A lot of authors have already pointed to the various problems with scientifically investigating online content (cf. Welker et al 2010). The fleetingness of data and the dynamics of the medium resulting from its high degree of multimedia hamper reliable data analysis. The data collected can be found elsewhere a second later and thus open up a new interpretation; the non-linear structure of websites additionally often leads to an unmanageable depth of links (cf. Welker et al. 2010). The research at hand met this problem of linked websites. It therefore has – due to economical reasons and the question of the study – confined the research object: As the study only investigates the possibilities of participation, only those Web 2.0 elements that were placed prominently and thus easily found by users were coded. Consequently, the homepage was analyzed (cf. Dimitrova/Neznanski 2006) as well as the first level pages. If Web 2.0 elements could be found on these pages, they were linearly followed to the second level pages and to their indicated subpages until no more participatory elements could be found. The limitation of this procedure is that Web 2.0 elements could only be found on subpages when they linearly were mentioned on the preceding main pages. Thus, the less prominent placed elements were not considered in the analysis. From this it also follows that in the longitudinal analysis some participatory elements were temporarily not traceable. This is explicable because they were either removed from the website due to a revision or placed on subpages that were not investigated. However, the study focuses on the participatory possibilities that websites of German political parties offer. Therefore, the quality and not the quantity of the offers is decisive. Essential to this quality is that the elements are easy to find. It cannot be eliminated that political parties e.g. have a profile on Facebook without linking it on their website. The participatory elements offered on these external websites were not captured by this study.

26The unit of analysis included all levels of each respective internet page. The federal parties had already been researched last year, thus allowing a comparison. The analysis of political party websites was complemented by qualitative guided interviews conducted with the representatives responsible for the internet pages. The interviews aim at identifying internet strategies and practices, as well as at illuminating internet-specific knowledge and attitudes on the basis of the question of how important participation is to the parties. A quantitative survey adds to the interviews. General information regarding the internet presence, the internet-related knowledge of the participants, and general assessments concerning the internet were collected, allowing the researchers to retrace several facets of the parties’ approach towards dealing with Web 2.0 prior, during and after important elections (in addition to the parties, the project also examines the approaches of the media and other institutions to Web 2.0).

RESULTS

Interpersonal communication/ relationship management

  • 3 On this platform users can upload photos for sharing.
  • 4 StudiVZ is a very famous German social network platform on which students can network. It is simil (...)

27Under consideration of deliberative politics, the participatory elements have to take centre stage, because they reflect in how far the party is willing to establish contact with the citizens. Via profiles on social networks, the German parties offer some participation. The SPD not only has a channel on YouTube but also accounts on Facebook, Flickr3 and Twitter. The CDU is registered on the social networks YouTube, studiVZ4 and Twitter and is thus not quite as active as the SPD. Figure 1 illustrates the presence of the parties in social networks.

Figure 1: Presence of the parties in social networks; date: May 2009

28Figure 1 shows that all parties represented in the German Bundestag have their own YouTube channel. The channel of the Green Party is named “Kanal Grün” (“channel green”); the name of the FDP channel is “TVliberal”. The second platform used most by the parties is studiVZ. Facebook, the best known social network for everyone (cf. Hitwise 2009), is used by every party except the CDU. The parties’ own platforms, on which members can meet in a community, rank fourth among the Web 2.0 possibilities. The SPD and the FDP, for example, have established party networks in the form of community platforms named “meinespd.net” and “myfdp.de” respectively. Through these platforms members can be easily reached and mobilised.

  • 5 The research only considered the use of Twitter by the parties. The activities of individual polit (...)

29Interestingly, changes occur quickly. The data collected in March 2009, at a time when the debate regarding Web 2.0 use of the parties was just starting, show no activities on the studiVZ platform. In March, the micro-blogging service Twitter was only being used by the party “Die Grünen”, while in May 2009 one already finds activities of the SPD and CDU on Twitter as well5.

30On their own websites, however, participatory offers have only been developed in a limited fashion which is visualised in Figure 2. SPD and Die Linke still communicate traditionally, via e-mail, while the CDU in 2008 implemented on its website a survey as an additional means of communication. The party «Die Grünen» added a comment function to their feedback form in 2009 and a discussion forum. The FDP ranks first when it comes to possibilities of enabling contact. In addition to contact via e-mail, established in 2008, they already initiated an info hotline, a wiki where citizens could also participate in the production of party position papers and a discussion forum. In 2009, they further added a comment function. With these offerings, the FDP already comes quite close to deliberative democracy. The study however does not investigate the quality of these possibilities and does not analyse to what extent comments of citizens find entrance into party politics. Live chats with politicians as well as influential elections, e.g. for positions, or possibilities for uploading files such as photos or videos were not offered by the parties.

Figure:2: Contact and participation possibilities; date: May 2009

Information management

31Web 2.0 elements not only serve to increase activity in social networks but also render the entire internet increasingly communication and user friendly. The present research has also analysed the parties in 2008 and 2009 regarding Web 2.0 elements with which a party disperses information about itself and its activities and has found varying increases of offers, which are expressed in Figure 3.

Figure:3: Federal parties using Web 2.0; date: May 2009

32By 2009, RSS Feeds could be found on every site. From a technical point of view it is easy to include the Web 2.0 application «really simple syndication» on a web page. This application offers enormous possibilities for providing users with up-to-date information once they have registered for that feed. Geotagging and bookmarking were added to the political parties’ web page offers in 2009. No clear pattern can be found in the new Web 2.0 elements offered by individual parties, except for the fact that overall the CDU features the fewest new offers on its site and the SPD the most.

33Politics increasingly focuses on multimedia-based content. In comparison to 2008, parties uploaded a greater number of videos to their sites because videos play a central role in online election campaigns. With this, parties adapted their online strategies to the usage patterns of the population: Between 2008 and 2009 the use of videos increased from 55 to 62 percent (cf. Van Eimeren/Frees: 2009).

DISCUSSION / INTERPRETATION

Interpersonal communication / relationship management

34This study has examined the party websites regarding their participatory elements, which offer citizens the possibility to become involved in political issues. These elements include public opinion polls and forums. In 2008, these offers were few, and so far they have only been expanded in a limited manner (especially by the FDP). The strong increase in multimedia content points to the fact that the technical possibilities of Web 2.0 are being employed. This, however, does not imply a move towards participation. By comparison, the FDP offers the greatest amount of possibilities for citizen contact, followed by the Green Party, the CDU, SPD and Linke. The FDP also ranks first in the number of possibilities for participation, followed by the SPD. Third place is shared by the CDU, Linke and Die Grünen.

35The internet hype regarding social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and studiVZ has also been recognized by all parties of the Federal German Government. In Germany, studiVZ ranks fourth among the most widely used web portals and is thus even more frequented than the website of the most popular German newsmagazine, «Spiegel Online» (cf. IVW 2009). To solicit the votes of adolescents, the parties have to follow them onto the internet: In 2008, the Allensbach study showed that the internet has surpassed the newspaper as the most popular information source of the below 40 year old constituency (cf. Köcher 2008). Especially concerning studiVZ, the parties have adapted to the conventions of this network in order to appeal to young people. One can leave comments, click on photo albums, and even “Gruscheln” the party. “Gruscheln” is a special word which was first used on studiVZ. It has no official definition and, according to studiVZ CEO Oliver Scopec, was interpreted by the press as a combination of saying hello and cuddling (“grüßen” and “kuscheln”). It is roughly equivalent to “poking” on Facebook. On the platform the word is used individually and can therefore vary in meaning (cf. Skopec 2008). The German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently added a personal page on studiVZ on which one can “gruschel” her. Personal homepages of politicians have been the standard for years, but during election campaigns the parties have also discovered social networks as a means for getting their message out. The website «wahl.de» provides information regarding the activities of politicians and parties in social networks. The owners of the webpage claim to have found the following pattern: The debate-happy party “Die Grünen” places great emphasis on interactive platforms such as Twitter, while the FDP focuses on the representative form of videos on YouTube. The social democrats, i.e. the SPD, are most active on Facebook since they mainly target the middle class, the members of which are most frequently found on Facebook (cf. Schneider 2009; Roggenkamp 2009).

36In terms of participation, it is primarily Facebook which is used by parties for entering into dialog with people. On Facebook, protest campaigns are advertised, and users can comment on the current political state or participate in live chats.

37The Twitter entries of SPD and Die Grünen lead to their respective homepages, while the CDU simply advertises its political agenda on Twitter. This kind of networking thus does not allow conclusions regarding the will to offer participation. Twitter is rather used as an instrument for attracting interest. “Because Obama used Twitter, an amazing number of politicians are using Twitter in the election year. If only they knew what for” (Staun 2009: 31, own translation).

38Only the FDP started offering participatory elements on its website. Via discussion forum and wiki the party gives citizens the possibility to engage with party politics.

39The Web 2.0 applications theoretically offer many approaches for implementing a deliberative policy as they allow many people to be included in debates. In this context, parties could establish points of intersection in order to promote deliberation. But so far the results generally show that German political parties offer too few participatory elements for the implementation of deliberative politics (cf. Leggewie/Bieber 2003; Welz 2002), although social networks are a first step in the right direction. Characteristic of Web 2.0 platforms is the idea of communicative networking of content and people (cf. Friedmann 2007: 45; Kilian et al. 2008: 12).

40Consequently, one can hardly speak of a participation in political debates via the net. Therefore, there can be no talk of a dehierarchization of political communication, because people are given too few opportunities to discuss contents - communication remains top-down: the party dictates the content while the public listens.

41The present study is still missing interviews with party leaders. With respect to the Federal State of Bremen, however, the study has already been completed and the results allow a number of conclusions regarding the federal level. Relating to the possibilities of Web 2.0 and general internet use, the responsible people exhibited considerable knowledge gaps. From this one can infer that politics has not yet recognized the importance of the web. The percentage of the public using the internet was underestimated and the concept of Web 2.0 and its elements were correctly defined only to a limited extent. But the main problem was the scepticism regarding illegal content, which could potentially be posted by users (cf. Witte et al. 2009). The operators of the web pages feel responsible for the content and have only limited personnel and financial resources for its control (cf. ibid.). During election campaigns there are sufficient funds, but apparently they are not or only little used for participation on the internet, possibly because this would also make it more difficult to govern the discourse. In her research concerning political institutions in Austria, Brunauer even states that the scepticism is greater the more a Web 2.0 application includes the users (cf. Brunauer 2008: 249). Parties, however, spend more time in social networks in order to enlist new members or voters and place greater emphasis on activities that go beyond their own party websites. Their sites do contain communities for networking of like-minded groups (cf. Dahlberg 2005), but this form of networking is less pronounced than other network activities.

Information management

42The analysis showed that German politics mainly relies on videos. The fact that all parties are using YouTube is logical insofar as this platform is the market leader among video platforms (cf. Hitwise 2009). There are two other reasons for focussing on video presentation on the internet. On the one hand, 60 percent of the German households have a broadband connection (cf. Bitkom 2009) and therefore easy access to videos. On the other hand, the use of videos on the internet strongly increased. 55 percent of the so-called “onliners” used videos in 2008. Among the 14 to 29 year old users 82 percent regularly viewed videos on the internet (cf. ARD/ZDF Online-Studie 2008). The German parties therefore follow the users onto the web and try to reach them by means of videos, primarily during the election campaign.

43The YouTube-channels as well as the websites of the parties in general are strongly reminiscent of U.S. political homepages. The German election campaigns have always used the American standard as a role model. It would therefore be consistent if, following Obama’s intense Internet campaign; the German election campaign would also increasingly relocate to the internet. But the German political system is not comparable with that of the U.S., and the typical personalized politics exhibited by the U.S. exists only to a limited extent in Germany.

CONCLUSION

44In recent years, the German political system has been faced with two demanding processes: A decrease in political engagement has put the legitimation of political parties and political decisions into question, while simultaneously the proliferation of new online media has fragmented the public sphere into parts. The theoretical discussion has shown that the internet and Web 2.0 contribute in an exclusive – and for the democratic process indispensable – way to the direct exchange between the populace and political actors. It is the online media that are «predestined to organise discourse among remotely living and diachronically communicating participants» (Leggewie/Bieber 2003: 144, own translation). Web 2.0 offers the most interesting aspects of online communication for political party communication. The applications and technologies of Web 2.0 even enforce the communication, information and participation potential of the internet as only they offer the technical requirements and the tools for intensified interaction, participation and innovative information management. The hierarchical top-down communication flow with its one-way structures could be dissolved in Web 2.0 in favour of a reinforced involvement of the public in political discourses, approaching the ideal of Habermas’ public sphere as well as the principal of the sovereignty of the people. If the results of this deliberation are then utilized, the legitimation of political decisions is simultaneously secured by ensuring democratic input and output (cf. Coenen 2005: 4f.; Scharpf 1998). The potential for an increase in democracy is thus given. But as Dahlberg (2007) states, a re-democratisation in view of the fragmentation of the public only exists if platforms are offered for inter-discursive contestation, especially of the dominating discourse (Dahlberg 2007; Habermas 2008). Political parties ought to be possible carriers of these platforms. In Germany, it is legally fixed that they have the task to be the “mediator through which the political will of the citizens can […] be carried out in-between the ballots” (Bundesverfassungsgericht 44: II, 2, own translation). This raises the question of in what way political parties can serve as a kind of junction in order to re-unite the possibly fragmented parts of the public. For this purpose they must operate in the, to a certain extent already occupied, parts of the net, for example in social networks. Furthermore, they must offer participation possibilities on their own websites in order to create these junctions, so that the already fragmented public can meet on them. If then they link to each other in the political discourses, the fragmentation could be bridged.

45Practically, however, there is no talk about that. The conclusion of the analysis instead is as surprising as disillusioning: The websites of the parties do not offer many possibilities for public participation in political decisions. Although the politicians are active on social platforms such as studiVZ and Facebook, it seems that this is solely for marketing purposes and not for facilitating political participation. The empirical investigation has shown that Web 2.0 is not sufficiently offered on the websites of the federal political parties. Thus, there can be no talk of a structural change of the public sphere. The political parties have admittedly extended their activities to social networking sites and follow young adults into the highly used studiVZ in order to approach a possible new electorate and to bind already existing electors. Facebook and Twitter are also newly integrated social networks that receive a strong interest from the parties. However, these networking activities mainly serve marketing purposes and “member-production”, and only to a limited extent the participation in political discourses. At least at studiVZ and Facebook the user is given the chance to leave a comment and to discuss political content. Also the FDP started to offer participatory elements such as a discussion forum and a wiki. But in what way these comments and discussions are integrated into political decision making processes is a question for content analysis or – in the research project following – qualitative interviews. On their own websites, the political parties generally stick to traditional modes of communication and offer only few possibilities to engage in their political communication. The main augmentation in terms of Web 2.0 applications can be observed in multimedia formats. This however does not lead to more political participation as users themselves are not able to submit content. Further analysis of the developments in and after the election campaign 2009 by the authors follow.

46This paper contributed to characterizing the online engagement of political parties and thus to the «internet-effect-discussion» from a communicator research perspective. The results of the empirical research have shown that the online communication of the federal political parties of Germany offers only few applications that hint at a development towards a deliberative democracy. And these few offered applications are in turn first and foremost geared towards like-minded groups. Inter-discursive contestation is still not possible: Users can take part in political occurrences through social platforms or party-integrated communities, but are not able to take part in decision-making processes.

OUTLOOK

  • 6 The final results will be published late 2010.

47The websites were analyzed again in September 2009, shortly before and after the election. In addition to that another survey was taken in February 2010 to determine if the websites had changed a few months after the election. The new results of the study shortly before and after the election show that there is a noticeable change in reference to participation because CDU and SPD implemented a live chat in which citizens can discuss issues with politicians. The FDP and the Lefts went one step further by integrating citizens in the election campaign asking them to decide on the party program or to discuss current topics. This is more than any other party offers, especially since these parties assert that they will use the feedback to improve their programs. Whether they will actually do that cannot be proved now; this is an opportunity for further research. What can be said is that at least one party is trying to use citizens’ feedback. Implementing live chats and asking citizens about political issues presents new possibilities for participation. In February 2010, the FDP still asked citizens to decide on the election program. This can definitely be called progress towards participation. It is likely that other parties will follow them. Including the opinions and ideas of citizens would take this one step further. If this is the case one could argue that Web 2.0 features will be the basis for more democratization and at least a little revolution in political communication6.

Literaturverzeichnis

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Anmerkungen

1 In 2009 the participation at the elections was again around seven per cent lower. 70.8 per cent of the eligible voters participated in the federal elections (cf. Schorn/Gisart 2010: 223).

2 A new article will be published late 2010 analyzing how political communication changes with Web 2.0 shortly before and after the federal election in Germany. Some preliminary results can also be found in chapter 7 of this article.

3 On this platform users can upload photos for sharing.

4 StudiVZ is a very famous German social network platform on which students can network. It is similar to the Anglo-American Web 2.0 platform Facebook.

5 The research only considered the use of Twitter by the parties. The activities of individual politicians on Twitter were not considered.

6 The final results will be published late 2010.

Abbildungsverzeichnis

Bildunterschrift Figure 1: Presence of the parties in social networks; date: May 2009
URL http://books.openedition.org/pressesmines/docannexe/image/685/img-1.jpg
Datei image/jpeg, 82k
Bildunterschrift Figure:2: Contact and participation possibilities; date: May 2009
URL http://books.openedition.org/pressesmines/docannexe/image/685/img-2.jpg
Datei image/jpeg, 71k
Bildunterschrift Figure:3: Federal parties using Web 2.0; date: May 2009
URL http://books.openedition.org/pressesmines/docannexe/image/685/img-3.jpg
Datei image/jpeg, 95k

Autoren

Professor of Broadcast Journalism and Online-Communication

Research Assistent

Research Assistent Hochschule Bremen Internationaler Studiengang Fachjournalistik, Bremen

© Presses des Mines, 2010

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