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In Germany, American-Style Dark Money Politics Means a Blog With Anonymous Backers

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, February 6 2013

When Americans today think of Citizens United, Super PACs and controversial outside spending, they might think of the Colbert Super PAC or TV ads that are financed by shady donors.

But in Germany, things work a little different. A group of supporters of Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, says they're bringing modern American "political communications" to the German elections — anonymous donors, independent expenditures ... and a blog.

Launched Sunday, is, according to German news reports, funded by so far anonymous German businesspeople and aims to promote Steinbrück's candidacy. The blog's "about" page declares that a small editorial team will be responsible for the posts and guest contributors, based in Düsseldorf, the capital of the state of North Rhine Westphalia. News reports explain that the lead editor of the blog is a former news magazine journalist, now the founder of a PR firm, who has personal ties to Steinbrück and his campaign advisor.

Der Spiegel reports that five businesspeople were funding the effort with a six-figure sum.

"My agency was commissioned by private businesspeople -- not companies -- to launch such a platform," the lead editor, Karl-Heinz Steinkühler, told the Handelsblatt. "This is a completely independent thing that has nothing to do with the party of the candidate."

He told the Handelsblatt he could not identify the funders, citing business secrecy, and wouldn't specify the contract volume or its length. In the U.S., so-called "Super PACs" can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of a candidate, but can't coordinate with the candidate's campaign. This concept has not translated to Germany in exactly the same way — but it's clear that the Steinbrück supporters are hoping to bring some of that Obama for America magic to the Social Democrat's campaign.

"We asked Peer Steinbrück if we could blog for him," the blog's "About Us" page states. "We showed how political communication in the U.S. works in response to the news of the day."

"Peer Steinbrück listened to us and analyzed our concept. He gave his OK that we could use his name for this blog, separately from the party," it reads.

The blog cites Barack Obama, a "black man" and a Democrat, as an outsider with an unknown name in 2008.

"That Barack Obama didn't just start his own campaign, he had many fans and companions who campaigned for him online through professional blogs and through social media channels over many months. The meanwhile worldwide successful news portal Huffington Post only became really influential and popular in the 2008 campaign.....[In 2012], while Obama's challenger dumped his millions in to classic TV advertising, the eventual winner invested his $ 3 billion in campaign spending (from donations) in to direct contact with voters -- online and door to door. We took a look at America. 2008. 2012. Fascinated, astounded, thrilled."

The blog has caused controversy in Germany because Steinbrück is not known as a particularly early adopter of the Internet and is under fire for raking in large sums in speaking fees. And Germans seem skeptical of American-style lobbying.

The New York Times reported in the fall on German distrust of lobbying and the comparatively old-school campaign style expected for this year's national election.

The advocacy group Lobbycontrol issued a statement criticizing the transparency of the site's funding.

"Our first reaction to the blog was astonishment," Christina Deckwirth, a political researcher and campaigner for the group, wrote in an e-mail. "Using the U.S. election campaign as a model strikes us as very astonishing. After all, it is if anything viewed critically here due to the large payments coming from business circles."

She wrote that this type of open support for candidates is still more the exception in Germany than the rule. While donations to parties are common, though nowhere near the same level as in the U.S., she wrote there are no rules for external campaign financing in Germany.

Sebastian Haselbeck is the managing director of the Internet & Society Collaboratory, an open expert platform, Internet policy incubator and multi-stakeholder think tank based in Berlin. As a personal project, he recently started an English-language Open Gov Germany blog.

"I think the effort points a little bit to inexperience, but overall many PR strategists have learned from their colleagues in the U.S. or are now trying to implement recipes for success," he wrote in an e-mail.. "The PeerBlog is just the beginning. I think PACs will emerge here as well, and as time goes on, Germany will also have its own "swift boat veterans" scandals."

Many of the comments on the blog's Facebook page are negative, and Twitter has given voice to critical reactions from opponents among the opposing Conservative Party, but also among supporters of the Pirates and the Left Party.

"I am particularly bothered by the double moral standard," wrote Henrik Bröckelmann, net policy spokesperson for the Junge Union, national youth organization of the CDU, in an e-mail. The SPD and Greens are quick to call for transparency when other parties are the focus.

"It gives the impression here that businesses want to write a certain candidate into office with the help of a blog, but don't want to stand by it with their name. Why is that?" he wrote. "This type of negative/positive campaigning through third-parties is indeed something new for Germany."

The administration of the Bundestag plans to look into whether the blog constitutes concealed party financing, Der Spiegel reported.

Even Anonymous has piled on. The site was offline for some time Wednesday, and people aligning themselves with the activist group took credit.

The blog itself has taken the criticism in stride.

"We willingly offer disclosure, as long as private business agreements aren't affected," Steinkühler, the owner of the PR agency, wrote in a blog post. "That however journalists are so quick to in ignorance jump on Twitter buzzwords like 'concealed party financing' is still surprising."

Steinkühler attributes the flak to an unwillingness to accept modern, American-style politics. But it's unclear exactly how "American-style" the website is in the first place.

"Most groups probably have a 'blog' on their site though it is an afterthought and not the sole focus," Democratic web consultant Matt Ortega wrote in an e-mail. "Most of those types of blogs were prevalent years ago by volunteers ... Those types of sites have dwindled as bloggers have become more professionalized or stop writing."