Politicians Using Social Media for Marketing and Transparency

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Transparency and citizens’ dialogue have been high on the media and political agenda at the latest since the Pirate Party entered the Berlin House of Representatives. Even conservative politicians use Facebook and Twitter. However, social media alone is not enough to satisfy an increasing need of citizens for transparency even when politicians even use a SMM panel to market themselves using social media.

“The Twitter world has been entered. The tension is rising! But what Peter Altmeier can do, I have to be able to do…”, writes CDU MP Michael Grosse-Brömer on 8 May 2012. His party colleague, Michael Fuchs, vice-chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, immediately replied: “Nice to meet you”.

Grosse-Brömer will send 49 short messages – about European politics or Iris Berben. He is, like the future Minister of the Environment Peter Altmeier, one of the many politicians of all stripes who have discovered social media for themselves.

Anyone who struggles through the vast amounts of “tweets” that are put on the Internet by members of parliament every day becomes insecure. Have politicians found a new channel in which they can carry their opinions to the world without the selective intervention of journalists? Or is political opinion-forming taking place here, compressed into 140 characters?

A previously unpublished study by the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich examines the attitudes of German politicians to Web 2.0. The study by Nina Springer, Barbara Rampf, and Bernhard Goodwin makes it clear how important the Internet has become for politics. The researchers surveyed almost ten percent of all German politicians in state parliaments, the Bundestag and the EU Parliament. According to the study, more than three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement that “Web 2.0 offers are indispensable for today’s politics”.

In the perception of the politicians surveyed, they also use the new media for citizens’ dialogue. Almost 40 percent stated that they used the offers to “enter into dialogue with politically interested parties”. That’s only 5 percent less than those who said they use Web 2.0 for policy statements.

Entire articles have been written about the twitter use of political novices and media darlings, the Pirate Party. This was often done under the sign of transparency and only sporadically, for example with more prominent members, under that of marketing. Even the former political director of the Pirates, Marina Weisband, was criticized more for her numerous media appearances than for her self-portrayal on the Internet.


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Is it really the case that the increasing presence of politicians in social networks makes them more transparent representatives of the people? Does the pressure for self-expression, to which politicians feel increasingly exposed, lead to the political process becoming more visible and thus more verifiable as a side effect?

An answer to this may be provided by the two Twitterers from the beginning of the article. Michael Fuchs, who is experienced in social media, came under criticism at the beginning of the year because he had not reported secondary activities to the President of the Bundestag as prescribed for years.

The Internet certainly played a role in exposing that omission. On a moderated portal for inquiries from citizens to politicians, a citizen Fuchs asked on 7 December 2011 whether his “activity for the Chamber of Foreign Trade in Hong Kong should not also be listed among his secondary activities”.

Fuchs replied evasively. Only after the questioner followed up again, quoting the rules of conduct of the Bundestag, did Fuchs answer succinctly: “I have reported my activity to the administration of the German Bundestag.”

Gregor Hackmack, one of the founders of Abgeordnetenwatch, sees online communication between citizens and politicians as a field of tension between self-promotion and serious conversation. “Many politicians use social media mainly for self-marketing.” Nevertheless, the Internet offers opportunities to make politics more visible.

Above all, a reversal of the communication principle is important. Away from one-sided press releases on 140 characters, towards an active dialogue with civil society. Are social media and moderated portals à la Abgeordnetenwatch completely different? Does one even promote transparency, while the other stands in its way? If this were the case, then the countless online presences of the Pirate Party and its omnipresence on Twitter should not be so highly regarded.

But to understand Twitter and its associates with the pirates as an instrument of dialogical communication and in the hands of the popular parties as a marketing channel would be absurd. Regardless of the self-perception of politicians – this becomes clear in the Munich study – the digital dialogue with the citizen has become politically highly relevant.

“In a way, there is increasingly a culture of transparency in politics; or at least the demand for it,” said Gregor Hackmack of Abgeordnetenwatch when asked.

It is also this cultural change that caused Michael Fuchs to stumble and he is probably also the reason why his party colleague started tweeting. There is increasing pressure on politicians to present themselves in Web 2.0. But the same pressure also leads to a transparent policy. Politicians are in a dilemma. If only a few use the social media channels, they have a marketing advantage over the inactive.

But if suddenly everyone tweets and faces citizens’ questions on portals such as Abgeordnetenwatch, politicians have to find new ways to set themselves apart. They can do this through the hype that has arisen around the concept of transparency. Transparency as marketing.