Contrary to concerns, campaigning in social media for the German federal elections 2017 was not marked by massive manipulation through tools like social bots or widespread fake news stories. While these phenomena occurred, much of the debate on social media was framed by or similar to discussions in traditional media; indeed, traditional media sources belonged to the most shared content on social media such as Twitter.
Facebook, by far the most important social network in Germany, in large parts cannot be monitored. Information is not yet available, for example, on targeted ad campaigns by political parties on Facebook, which also means that it is impossible to understand the flows and sources of money behind such campaigns. As it stands, any state or non-state actor could buy targeted advertising on Facebook to try and influence elections without Facebook users being aware who is behind these ads. We also do not know how Facebook’s algorithms encourage or hinder echo chamber effects by feeding users views which are in line or contrary to their networks’ views. Given the growing role of these online social networks for public debate and electoral campaign dynamics, their continuing opacity is problematic. Independent organisations and experts which seek to assess the influence of social media around election campaigns face a serious “black box” problem. A further concern has been the questioning of democratic institutions by the party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has been more virulent on social media than in traditional media. Portraying the German system as a modern-time communist system without pluralism suggests that the party is not committed to Germany’s democratic-pluralistic order.
While what could be observed on social media did not raise immediate alarm, many serious questions remain on the impact of social media on electoral campaigns. These were the main conclusions of an expert debate held by DRI and the Mercator Foundation on 21 September in Berlin in Mercator’s Projektzentrum Berlin. Expert presentations were given by Ray Serrato of DRI, Alexander Sängerlaub of Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, Professor Stefan Stieglitz from the University of Duisburg-Essen and Dr Kay Hinz of neues handeln. 25 participants from research institutions and political parties attended the debate, which was moderated by Kirsten Hommelhoff from the Mercator Foundation and Michael Meyer-Resende and Dr. Finn Heinrich of DRI.