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Young and Naive YouTube Questions for German Politicians

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, August 22 2013

German Chancellor-Candidate Peer Steinbrück with Tilo Jung (Jung und Naiv/Facebook)

In the U.S., when politicians want to reach out to younger audiences, they often appear on the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. In the ongoing German campaign season leading up to the September 22 national election, politicians this year have been able to take advantage of a new outlet, inspired by those U.S. examples, to connect with a younger demographic.

Since February, freelance German journalist Tilo Jung has gained attention with his YouTube series Jung & Naiv. The title is a play on his name, but it also encapsulates the persona he takes on for the series, which has the tagline "Politics for the Disinterested." On the series, which meanwhile has 77 episodes, Jung plays a naive, young man, who, has an interest in political topics and is easy to impress, as Jung himself put it in a crowdfunding pitch. While initially producing the series himself, first with an iPhone and then a DSLR, he was able to raise 5,795 euros on the German journalism crowdfunding site Krautreporter to allow for fancier post-production.

"The format is meant to appeal to those who are fed up with politics, who feel overwhelmed by the current political situation or have shut themselves off from it," he wrote in the pitch. "But it's also meant to appeal to those interested in politics: for them the possibility of gaining insight is in the background, entertainment is at the forefront."

So far on his show he has discussed Bitcoin, online surveillance, drones, gay marriage and banking regulations with politicians from the Green Party, the Left Party, the liberal FDP party, including the Justice Minister, the Conservative CDU and CSU, including the Interior Minister, as well as outside experts such as computer security expert Jacob Appelbaum. In April, he interviewed in English the U.S.'s then- ambassador to Germany, Philip Murphy. The two discussed how American ambassadors are chosen, the stationing of American troops in Germany, nuclear weapons and Wikileaks. In the interviews, he takes a very informal approach, addressing his German interviewees with the informal "du" personal pronoun, sitting close to his guests and asking basic, but also often provocative and uncomfortable questions.

"I chose topics that are discussed wrongly, not at all or far too little," he told the Tagesspiegel in June, and identified Colbert's approach of playing a character as an inspiration. According to the Berliner Zeitung, he had previously gained journalism experience as a trainee at a North German regional paper and also studied law and business, though he did not complete a degree.

Groundbreaking political interview

As something of a first this week, Jung posted a recently conducted unedited 30 minute discussion with Social Democratic chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück. An edited version of the interview aired for the first time on a new youth-oriented cable channel called joiz.

Even though Germans do not directly elect the chancellor, in a poll at the beginning of August, 60 percent preferred Merkel compared to 28 percent who preferred Steinbrück, and other recent polls indicate that his desired coalition of Social Democrats with the Green Party would not have a majority at the moment. The latest polls put the Pirate Party at two to four percent, below the five percent cut-off for entry into Parliament.

At the end of the next week, September 1, both major candidates will participate in the only televised debate of the campaign. One of the moderators of the debate, which will air with hosts from public broadcasters and private cable channels, will be Stefan Raab, who is more well known as a comedian, entertainer and musician, in the hope of appealing more to young people. According to one recent poll, 69 percent of Germans intend to vote in this year's election, compared with 70.8 percent in 2009, which was the lowest rate in modern German history. A group of journalism students have even created an interactive project examining the motivations of non-voters.

In the interview, Jung asked Steinbrück why the SPD had abandoned an initial discussion of choosing the candidate through a U.S. style primary vote by party members, rather than having party members approve the candidate agreed on by the party leadership. "Party member balloting really only makes sense, when there is a selection to be made, when there are two, and the party members say: either I choose A or B," Steinbrück said. In this case, he suggested that the other two potential candidates, party chair Sigmar Gabriel and previous candidate and Bundestag opposition leader Frank Walter Steinmeier, had decided not to run.

Discussing the meaning of political power, Steinbrück emphasized its time limited nature and the checks-and-balance function of the Bundestag, which elects the chancellor. "That means you all elect a parliament for four years, and it controls the government. And then they can vote the government out, if you have the impression that it has messed things up."

"Has our government messed things up?," Jung asked.

"Well, I don't want to do it that bluntly, but....," Steinbrück replied, as Jung encouraged him.

"Well, one can ask oneself: what have they actually done in the past four years," Steinbrück continued. "Have they accomplished anything with pensions? With education? With fast Internet?... Frau Merkel once offered a grand broadband strategy. Nothing has come of it! Internet in rural areas is still as slow as you have known it."

In response to similar comments Steinbrück made in a separate TV interview, the CDU's "Election Facts" website stated that the government's broadband strategy has already made fast Internet at 50 Mbit/s available to more than half of German households, about five times as many as when the effort began in 2009.

As the interview progressed, Jung continued to ask him about Merkel's record, his desired coalition with the Greens, his platform on issues such as the minimum wage, his own time as finance minister in Merkel's previous government, his views on the European banking crisis and Germany's relationship with Greece and the European Union, often making reference to what he "learned" from previous interviews.

Toward the end of the interview, Jung asked him about the NSA surveillance debate and the American troops stationed in Germany.

Steinbrück suggested that it could be hard to make the German public aware of the extent of online surveillance because it did not cause direct pain and said that he had been expressing such concerns regularly, criticizing Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's Chief of Staff and Federal Minister for Special Affairs, for declaring the debate to be over.

As chancellor, he said he would consider signing a new agreement with the American government to make sure that it respects German law and interests. He also said it was important to improve IT-security and to use more encryption technologies, explaining that he was of the opinion that "intelligence agencies usually do those technical things which are technically possible." Regarding American troops in Germany, he noted that the U.S. has logistical needs as part of NATO, and that the withdrawal of American as well as British and French troops has already advanced significantly.

Asked whether he would consider governing with the Pirate Party, Steinbrücks said he did not think they would be a reliable partner. "With the Pirates I have not yet recognized any party organization with which I could really say: Okay, we will do this together for four years. Maybe four days later they have the idea that everything should be different?"

An iconoclastic approach

Jung's unconventional format has prompted a mixed reaction in the German press. While the Tagesspiegel headlined that Jung was "revolutionizing" journalism on YouTube, a Sueddeutsche Zeitung column criticized the concept, arguing that Jung was not able to elicit any interesting information in his interviews. "The insight gained tends towards zero."

The episode with Steinbrück has already accumulated over 20,300 views on YouTube since being posted Monday, and generally positive comments. "Super concept, and the SPD and Peer Steinbrück have become more sympathetic to me through this interview," commenter jordanmags [sic] writes. Another noted that his eventual shift to "du" during the interview had made him more sympathetic. Another commenter said the interview was better than the ones done by public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. Others asked whether there would be an interview with Merkel.

So far he has only done interviews with members of her government and her Press Secretary Steffen Seibert. In that interview, Seibert discussed his daily routine and his use of Twitter and how other foreign governments use Twitter.

Internet as an experimental place

Asked why Merkel doesn't personally tweet, Seibert said there was no time or space to fit that activity into her daily workflow regularly, but agreed that she was a skilled text messager and noted that she had participated in a Google Hangout on integration viewed that got around 100,000 views.

Steinbrück opened a Twitter account last fall and occasionally tweets himself. His social media accounts have also taken to posting photos of short, handwritten messages he writes in response to issues and controversies that come up during the campaign. The CDU is countering on social media with its "Election Facts" website focused on discrediting Steinbrück's media appearances and statements, such as on tax policy, although so far it does not address his interview with Jung. As techPresident reported earlier this year, parties across the German political spectrum are looking to the U.S. example in launching their online campaigns. Net policy lawmakers from three of the major parties have also been applying their election platforms to a SimCity competition.

(Translation: Our clear position: We will raise taxes for a few. On that issue we stand together in accord. As far as tax fraud is concerned:The more successful we are at fighting it, the sooner we can discuss tax relief.)

Post by CDU.

(Translation: A small find from Peer's note collection: Do you want to go steady with me? Yes. No. Maybe. Sincerely, your tax hike.)

As part of its recently launched German election portal, Google is now sponsoring a series of hangouts hosted by Jung following a similar concept. In the first two, aimed at non- or new voters, he spoke with Marina Weisband, former political director of the Pirate Party, and Gesche Joost, Steinbrück's campaign point person for net policy topics and a possible Internet minister of sorts in a Steinbrück government.

Joost is a professor for design research at the University of the Arts Berlin, where she has focused on human-computer-interaction, gender and diversity aspects in technological development, and she does not have a political background.

In the hangout, which also incorporated questions from social media, Joost said that as a member of government she would work to remove liability regulations that prevent the expansion of free Wi-Fi in German due to concerns about unauthorized downloads. She said she would support legislation to reduce the fines connected with cease-and-desist orders for unauthorized downloads, and said it would make more sense to work on cutting off advertising or online payments from infringing platforms while taking measures to remove child pornography content.

Addressing the issue of e-mail encryption and her skepticism of data retention laws, Joost said she came from a 1990s' "utopian" Internet perspective that sees the web not as a "mean, dark nerd corner, where mean criminal acts are planned, but as a great space for experimentation ..."

Given her non-political background, she said that as a part of government she would be interested in giving greater recognition to people participating in the political process through alternative ways of civic engagement, such as through social networks or formats like Jung & Naiv, rather than just the traditional party structures. While she said she watched the emergence of the Pirate Party with admiration, she said she chose to get involved with the SPD because she felt the Pirate Party would not be able to address the broader spectrum of political issues with Internet policy as a main focus, and said she wanted to help newly reshape the established mainstream parties from within. She explained that she would be interested in coordinating a net policy throughout government and ministries, and helping to give greater prominence and voice to SPD politicians already focused on net policy.

Joost added that said she would be interested in expanding e-petition platforms, such as the kind that already exists for the Bundestag. A recent study evaluating the role of open government in the German party platforms by the private Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen found that only the Green Party explicitly incorporated an overarching open government standard and commitment into its platform, while the other parties reflected those ideas in their proposals in less explicit form.

Joost reiterated her support for codifying net neutrality into law both in Germany and on the European level. Regarding the controversy over Deutsche Telekom's proposal to throttle Internet connections that go over a new broadband data cap, she said she would oppose any effort to exempt Telekom-sponsored services from the cap, but that she did not support political interference in the plan to eliminate flat-rate Internet service, which she called a question for the free market.

But she did emphasize her support for a universal service obligation to counter the tendency of Internet providers to not offer service in rural areas that are not as profitable, and pointed out the SPD's plan for a public citizens' endowment fund to help support the expansion of broadband. She noted that she had experienced first-hand the lack of connectivity during her own travels in the East German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

On Wednesday, Joost also participated in another SPD-organized Google Hangout with other SPD net policy politicians and party members, incorporating social media questions, which touched on the role of net policy within the party, how to address online privacy protection and transparency concerns in Germany and Europe, expanding online access to socially disadvantaged families and improving computer literacy education in schools. The participants jokingly concluded the discussion with a wish for a "red-green Internet ministry and more cat pictures."

As the election campaign enters its final weeks, Jung is still planning more interviews. He has already posted a new interview in which leading Green Party candidate Jürgen Trittin discusses subjects ranging from childcare funding to online surveillance, and praises Edward Snowden's actions while differentiating the U.S. from the historic authoritarian East German government.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.