The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.
Political campaigns in Germany struggle with how to successfully use social media to increase civic engagement, particularly among young people. The power of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the way they have rapidly shaped citizen expectation in recent years generates a particular anxiety among political parties. In a recent talk delivered at the Hertie School of Governance, entitled “Unusual Suspects: State and Party Online Political Communication in German Elections”, PhD Candidate Dirk Von Schneidemesser questioned the use of Social Networking Systems (SNS) for influencing engagement.
In the 2009 federal election, only 2.4 per cent of the German electorate posted political information on social networking sites; four years later, that number was only slightly higher. A related trend in Germany concerns a declining volume of political information posted and seen on Facebook, despite an increase in general usage. Party membership has also declined significantly, falling 20 per cent between 1999 and 2007. The existing membership base of traditional parties such as the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union are now comprised of an older demographic.
There is no question that SNS are popular among young people, and that increasing demand for online engagement is a phenomenon political parties must respond to. Yet, Germany’s parties have tended to stick with conventional methods, generally reaching out to older and wealthier populations. While this may be a logical strategy given low young voter turnout and a resilient older membership, it poses a threat to civic engagement and democratic principles.
Von Schneidemesser argues that, since political parties are not currently playing an important role on social media, the state must assume a responsibility to engage and inform citizens on political issues through ICTs during elections in order to maintain democratic legitimacy.
While this is an admirable response to a complex issue, questions regarding civic engagement and state involvement remain. There is, for example, concern over the binary created between younger and older populations that categorize their use of social media as either existent or non-existent. A holistic perspective, that opens a space for younger people in traditional forms of engagement and for older people in an online context, would arguably be more productive. Another concern revolves around whether online political engagement always transfers into voting action. It is not enough to argue for a more civically-engaged youth cohort — and that social media can make this link — when political parties are only after a particular type of engagement.
The same concerns are pertinent in the Canadian context, which has yet to concretely visualize the effect of SMS on political engagement. Nevertheless, political campaigns have waded into this mire. The 2011 federal election has been referred to as the first social media election. One potential fear is that social media is volatile and gives politicians less control over how their message is conveyed. While political parties should want to increase their presence online, if the effect of this is not predictable or intended, it is not politically strategic. Perhaps the state does have a more active role to play online to fully inform its citizens, young and old, as Von Schneidemesser suggests it does in Germany.
If so, questions arise around how such a strategy would work, given that is predominantly young people who use social media, and whether state action would actually neglect the older demographic. What sort of regulations or policies would need to be established to ensure fair and equitable delivery? Von Schneidemesser’s talk raised important questions for the future of elections, and what an increasingly online world will mean for political or state action. Political actors must also consider how to respond to any future changes made to the way civic engagement is realized.
Sydney Raeburn-Bell is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, and is studying abroad at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Sydney recently worked for the Ontario Public Service at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. Her policy interests lie in social policy, immigration, health, and gender equity. She is also interested in exploring comparisons between the best cheap flights so she can travel around Europe.