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With Shades of Obama's 2012 Campaign, Internet Politics Appears in German Elections

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, April 2 2013

"Elli" goes to Pre-K at Age 2.

The whole world watched the 2012 presidential elections in the United States and saw a wired campaign where the web was both tool and topic, a means to political ends and a subject of politics in itself.

As Germany prepares to elect a new government, candidates and political parties are taking stances and strategies with shades of the American 2012 campaign, from Obama for America's use of the web to the slow rise of Internet policy as an important campaign issue.

The race for the right to form a government is close between current Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, which is in a ruling coalition with the free-market liberal FDP, and Social-Democratic candidate Peer Steinbrück and his SPD. Hoping to mount a credible insurgency, Steinbrück is looking to some of the same tools that Obama used: At least nominal support for increased rights for Internet users and technology entrepreneurs, a volunteer-driven ground campaign, and a flashy, tech-savvy web presence.

But when it comes to being the "Internet candidate," Steinbrück's reputation isn't helping him.

The social democrat most recently tried to create space between his party and Merkel's a over a German news licensing requirement for search engines and aggregators. The bill, all but certain to become law before September elections, requires search engines to pay a fee for reposting anything but a narrowly defined type of "excerpt." Merkel supported the legislation against Steinbrück's SPD, the youth wings of all major parties, Google, start-up companies and online activists.

The SPD could have jammed the bill in committee in the upper house of Germany's bicameral legislature. Instead, lawmakers passed the bill along and Steinbrück vowed to modify it if his party is given the chance to form a government.

Opponents of the bill accused Steinbrück of hypocrisy, but that hasn't stopped him from continuing an Internet-policy crusade. In April, Steinbrück plans to attend the Next Berlin conference to discuss the "chances and challenges for digital development and business in Germany and Europe."

Steinbrück's embrace of the web has not been without other challenges. The candidate only joined Twitter in December, and only occasionally tweets himself. When he held a Twitter Q&A that month, a photo released by the SPD showed a staffer doing the typing while Steinbrück sat next to him. When a Spiegel reporter quizzed him on the set-up during the Q&A, he responded on Twitter, "I am reading, my neighbor is typing. He is just faster."

When a blogger took to Twitter recently to criticize his party's handling of the news licensing law, Steinbrück's Twitter account fielded an arch reply: "When has a chancellor candidate from either party ever been interested in net policy! When?"

As Netzpolitik documented, the tweet was deleted moments later, only to show up as a post by the SPD staffer in the photo from the Q&A — perhaps a reminder that the Internet candidate doesn't tweet for himself.

In 2012, the rising importance of Twitter in American politics prompted the Sunlight Foundation* to launch Politwoops, a web application that archives tweets from politicians' accounts and republishes ones that they later delete.

The latest incident with Steinbrück prompted Netzpolitik to give an early launch to a German version of Politwoops, which it had been working on with Netwerk Democratie and Hack de Overheid from the Netherlands. (In a comment on Netzpolitk's article, the staffer noted that his involvement was not a secret and added, "We'll be even more careful in the future ;-)" ).

The White House/ SPD on Twitter

Earlier this year, Steinbrück found himself in the hot seat as he struggled to explain his relationship with anonymous outside supporters who sought to drum up support with a blog that, bizarrely, touted itself as a nod to American "super PACs." The blog shut down in just a few days after criticism from the media, other political parties, advocacy groups and a prolonged denial-of-service attack attributed to accounts associated with Anonymous.

But other efforts by the Social Democrats to launch an Obama-like, web-centric campaign appear to be more successful.

As the Social Democrats unveiled their election headquarters in Berlin last Friday, the optics echoed the Obama campaign's Chicago headquarters. (The SPD's "Kampa" concept, first established for its successful 1998 campaign, was originally meant to emulate the U.S. "war room" style of campaign management, as several German political science research theses highlight.) Photos posted with an SPD report on the launch show rows of young staffers busily working at their computers. In the article, General Secretary Andrea Nahles emphasizes plans to go door-to-door and mobilize supporters. Part of that concept, she explains, will involve so-called "campaigners" who will bridge the distance between the main headquarters and local teams at the election district level.

If that sounds familiar to American operatives, it might not be an accident: Nahles visited the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago last year and also attended the Democratic National Convention in September. She reflected on her visit in a Facebook photo showing her at the Obama headquarters.

"Now I'm going back with many ideas in my backpack," she wrote. "They are right to call this organization here 'the machine.'"

In a November interview with public broadcaster ZDF, she described how impressed she was at how the campaign was able to incorporate ongoing feedback from supporters on the ground to optimize the campaign.

Facebook/ SPD

And it's not just the SPD campaign organization that looks like the Obama campaign. Parts of the SPD's web presence do as well.

On March 21, the SPD parliamentary group launched an interactive titled "Elli earns more!" highlighting how a hypothetical young German woman might benefit, throughout her lifetime, from SPD policies aimed at achieving equal opportunities for women. The interactive echoes the Obama campaign's "Julia" interactive, no longer available online, which launched last May and made more or less the same point about the president's policies, using a hypothetical woman with a less Teutonic name.

After a German journalist noted the similarity and suggested on Twitter that the SPD was emulating Obama, an SPD staffer called Elisa Gutsche, who added that she had worked on the concept, replied by saying they had "taken a peek." On Twitter, Gutsche describes herself as a Social-Democrat and a "hillary-fangirl." She also recently contributed a piece for a German online culture magazine on her love for "The West Wing" and "The Good Wife," two American TV dramas that celebrate New World politics. She also says in her Twitter bio that she is in favor of "more pathos and emotion in German politics."

Angela Merkel and her party are also trying to appeal to voters online.

Merkel plans to reach out to voters through a Google Hangout next month, the print edition of the Handelsblatt reported last week. She has already responded to questions on YouTube and held a tele-townhall aimed at party members. Her administration also produces a weekly "Week of the Chancellor" video.

Obama, meanwhile, has hosted not one but two Google Hangouts, has participated in a live Q&A where he answered questions posed via YouTube, and got on teleconferences with campaign volunteers while on the trail. In Obama's first term, videographer Arun Chaudhary, who came with him from the 2008 campaign, launched "West Wing Week," a video diary of the president's administration that continues today.

Merkel's party, the Conservative Christian Democrats, is also encouraging its members to submit their own suggestions to the party platform through an interactive platform that highlights the government's accomplishments and then provides space for submissions. Obama's 2008 campaign and the Democratic National Committee asked supporters to host their own meetings to come up with ideas and then submit them as possible "planks" in that year's official party platform.

Meanwhile, the opposition Greens have set up an "Unelect Calendar" targeted at the current government with the tagline "200 Days 200 Reasons." One post last week read "179 more days of Big Mother is watching you."

Perhaps they got the idea from the independently organized 90 Days, 90 Reasons effort in support of Obama. In April, one of the leading candidates of the Green Party will be answering supporter-submitted questions.

According to one of the latest polls, the CDU/CSU would receive 39 percent of the vote, the SPD 28 percent, the Greens 15 percent, the FDP 4 percent, the Left 8 percent and the Pirates 3 percent. The cut-off to be represented as a party in Parliament is 5 percent.

But Green Party Campaign Manager Robert Heinrich also emphasized to the Handelsblatt that one challenge for the German political parties' online campaigns is that Germans are less likely to share political opinions and messages online.

"Here the people are more reserved with their partisan political preferences," he is quoted as saying in the German paper.

Many Americans reacted to this week's Supreme Court arguments by changing their profile picture to the Human Rights Campaign's red equals sign in support of gay marriage to form, as Salon put it, a "sea of red for equality."

Germans are still more likely to change their profile picture to support the German National Soccer Team, as they began doing during the 2006 World Cup held in Germany, than to express support for any kind of political idea.

To change that, it looks like Steinbrück at least is trying to lead by example. On Thursday, he changed his profile picture to the Human Rights Campaign's equal sign, expressing his support for so-called "rainbow families" and urging his supporters to do the same. The SPD has been making gay rights an election issue in the campaign.

A look at some of the comments on his post shows that some of his supporters took him up on the idea.