Chemnitz and Kandel: How hashtags are shaping German politics | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW


Two cities, two tragic deaths involving asylum seekers and two very different responses on social media – at least from established German political parties.

On September 3, almost everyone, of whatever political importance in the country, tweeted their take on the protest concert held to condemn the far-right instrumentalization of the Chemnitz murder of a German on August 26, allegedly involving an Iraqi and a Syrian refugee.

Meanwhile, the asylum seeker convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl in the town of Kandel, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, was sentenced to eight and a half years.

Media researchers Wolfgang and Mathias König from Landau University in the region examined tweets from top politicians that day. They found that while the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) rushed to express outrage, the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the state remained silent on social media.

“The struggle to determine how the event was interpreted under #Kandel was ceded to the AfD,” Wolfgang König told DW. “The SPD leadership in Rhineland-Palatinate [the federal state in which Kandel lies] and the leadership of the national party did not tweet about the verdict during the period in question. “

Read more: Far-right protesters clash with counter-protesters over murder of girl

Political consultant Martin Fuchs, who specializes in social media, told DW that #Kandel was a boon for the far right, which was able to turn a singular and exceptional event into a national issue. He, too, thinks that the lack of response from the SPD may have been a mistake.

“If I see the AfD posting a lot on Kandel, I would also use the hashtag to make my positions visible and show the silent minority that there is an alternative voice,” says Fuchs.

So why haven’t the Social Democrats responded? Was it part of a general strategy or was it the specificity of Kandel news?

Right-wing populists were quick to express outrage at the Kandel verdict – in real life and online

The battle to be more

SPD secretary general in Rhineland-Palatinate Daniel Stich rejects the idea that his party dropped the ball on the Kandel conviction. He says the party made its point known by September 3 and points out that the court’s verdict came just as public attention was focused on Chemnitz. That’s why he and other regional Social Democrats tweeted about the situation in Chemnitz – five hundred kilometers to the east – and not about their own region.

After 65,000 people attended the anti-right concert in the east German city, the hashtags #Chemnitz and #wirsindmehr (“We are more” – the concert motto) continued to be used in tens of thousands of tweets all over Germany. The reasons why #Chemnitz drowned #Kandel may have to do with the nature of the medium itself.

Read more: Lessons from Chemnitz: Right-wing protesters in East Germany inundated with anxiety

“If we look at #Chemnitz in comparison, we see democratic forces standing up to the AfD,” said Mathias König. “But with #Chemnitz, the state has been criticized from both sides: the left accused it of being too lax towards the Nazis, and the right, too lax towards the refugees. What is problematic is that Twitter is polarizing and harming the democratic state, because when a verdict is delivered, only the critics speak out. “

Screenshot of the Alice Weidel Twitter account

The AfD was founded as a digital party, and most of its leaders as avid Twitter users.

Digital nuts and bolts

Fuchs agrees that social media, and Twitter in particular, is a genre that leans considerably in the negative. People are more likely to tweet about what they hate than what they like. This, says Fuchs, favors Germany’s most negative party, the AfD.

And far-right populists may have another advantage as well. Founded only five years ago, the AfD is basically a digital party, whose members first came together on platforms like Facebook. Thus, unlike traditional parties, its structures are perfectly suited to the digital age.

Read more: AfD Facebook posts spur attacks on refugees, new study shows

“In terms of nuts and bolts, and for its target audience, everything the AfD does is very good,” Fuchs said. “The AfD has been successful in getting even the smallest locals to have their own Facebook pages. The other parties don’t have that. And there aren’t even procedures in place to change that.”

AfD figures, including party co-leader Alice Weidel, are clearly heavy users of Twitter, while neither SPD President Andrea Nahles nor Rhineland-Palatinate Social Democratic Prime Minister Malu Dreyer have a personal Twitter account.

SPD Facebook screenshot

The SPD has focused more on Facebook, but the party does poorly in opinion polls

The specter of social media

With the upstart AfD rivaling and even surpassing the Social Democrats in some opinion polls, it’s tempting to conclude that the SPD and other established parties are losing the digital battle. But Stich cautions that the importance of Twitter should not be overstated. He also points out that the SPD is emphasizing social media elsewhere.

Read more: Bundestag cybercampaigns take place on Facebook and Twitter

– “Malu Dreyer has the greatest Facebook reach of any politician in Rhineland-Palatinate,” Stich told DW. “She was also the first premier in the state to have an Instagram profile. If we are talking about digital communication, we have to look at everything and ask ourselves how we can best reach people.”

While acknowledging the AfD’s success in mobilizing its supporters, Stich suspects populist numbers on social media may be inflated by fake followers and bots. And he says when Social Democrats think about it, they can compete digitally and set the agenda online.

“We’ve achieved something – the #wirsindmehr hashtag is doing well,” Stich says. “The impression that only one side is active is misleading.”

An advertising victory in Chemnitz

In the war to determine the dominant narrative, Chemnitz was a battle won by mainstream parties and opponents of the AfD and other far-right populist groups. Images of tens of thousands of anti-AfD spectators on Monday eclipsed those of thousands of far-right supporters during the mourning march for the Chemnitz murder victim, which was co-sponsored by the AfD two days earlier.

This was in part due to the appeal of the #wirsindmehr hashtag, coined by the bands that performed at the concert.

“#wirsindmehr did not have a tinge of any particular political party, especially those on the left,” Fuchs said. “A lot of the protesters didn’t want to be labeled as leftists. They were democracy supporters.”

Hashtags don’t need politicians to establish themselves, and in fact, the most emotional may not come from politicians or political marketers. But it’s the politicians who translate digital trends into laws and policies while themselves being heavily dependent on how the winds blow online. One message that can be taken from Kandel and Chemnitz is that no one can afford to ignore the power – and demands – of social media.


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