2010/04/13 Andreas Jungherr

Twitter in Politics at CHI 2010 – The Presentation

This sunday I participated in the workshop Microblogging: What and How Can We Learn Form It? at CHI 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. During the workshop I presented my position paper Twitter in Politics: Lessons Learned during the German Superwahljahr 2009 in an ignite talk.

The workshop was organized by Julia H. Grace [@jewelia], Dejin Zhao [@djzaho] and danah boyd [@zephoria]. It was a great experience and very interesting to discuss the research challenges that microblogging poses with an international and highly interdisciplinary crowd of researchers. I’ll post my thoughts on the workshop later this day. In this post I’ll make my presentation and the rough draft of my talk available.

Since I tend to speak freely in presentations this draft might not be exactly what I said, still it should be pretty close. Anyhow this talk was meant as an appetizer to the position paper on the same topic. So, if you’re looking for something to cite, kindly have a look at said position paper.

Twitter in Politics: Lessons Learned during the German Superwahljahr 2009

by Andreas Jungherr

Draft v.1.0

In this ignite talk I want to take you on a short trip through my position paper Twitter in Politics: Lessons Learned during the German Superwahljahr 2009, so that by the end of this presentation, you’ll have an idea on how and why the German party CDU used Twitter in the campaigns of 2009 like it did.

2009 was a special year for political campaigners in Germany. This had two reasons:

One was the relative high density of high-profile elections in this year. In 2009 there were elections in five important Bundesländern, elections to the European parliament, the election of the German Bundespräsident and in autumn, the German general election.This lead to the term Superwahljahr – the year of the super election.

The second reason was Barack Obama, or rather the things Obama did to win the US presidential election, or rather the things the media thought he was doing to win the election.

The German media was quick to identify the microblogging service Twitter as a key element to Obama’s victory. And while one can find good reasons to disagree with their assessment, Twitter suddenly became the thing to do for up and coming politicians.

As anyone knows who worked with politicians, politicians tend to be like kids with regard to the adoption of knew technology. At first they want nothing to do with anything new, but when the cool kids are flashing a new toy there is nothing more important to them than to possess exactly THAT toy. This is exactly what happened with regard to Twitter in the German political scene from late 2008 onwards.

During 2008 most German politicians kept as far away from Twitter as humanly possible only to flock to the service in the aftermath of the press-storm about the online magic the Obama campaign managed to conjure up. In late 2008 and early 2009 many German politicians regardless of party and age found their inner Twitterer – or the inner Twitterer of a lucky staff member – and started a Twitter account.

This led to considerable concern in all parties since suddenly the campaigns had a social media component that was new to German campaigns. Fortunately the high frequency of campaigns in 2009 proved to be very fortunate for exactly this challenge. Campaigns on the state and European level could be used as prototypes for elements of social media campaigning. So by the time the national campaign went into its hot phase most German parties had had the chance to get acquainted with social media and incorporate it in some way in their grand strategy.

This proved to be a very interesting time to work for political campaigns in Germany. In early 2009 I entered the campaign to reelect the Ministerpräsident of Hessia, Roland Koch. During that campaign my work focused pretty much on the use of Twitter by our online campaign, the webcamp09. Later that year I entered the national campaign for the general elections. There I also worked on the use of Twitter by the campaign but I also worked on the approach the campaign took to social media in general.

This already hints at the way the CDU treated their campaigns in the Bundesländer. These campaigns were not isolated but were used as test cases and prototypes for the use of Twitter and social media in general. Two of the most valuable prototypes for the national campaign proved to be the online campaigns in the Bundesländern Hessia and Saarland. Both campaigns centered their online campaigns with their respective volunteer campaigns, the webcamp09 and the Peter Müller Team 09. Both campaigns used Twitter feeds under the names [@webcamp09] and [@pmt09]. The experiences with these accounts led the national campaign to start a Twitter feed [@teAMDeutschland]. And in turn the lessons learned during the campaign for the general elections in 2009 led to the way the campaign to reelect the Ministerpräsident Jürgen Rüttgers uses their Twitter account [@nrwruettgers] in early 2010, a campaign which I advise on their online activities.

So which were some of the lessons learned? Twitter proved a very important tool to do some classic community building. The Twitter feeds [@webcamp09] and [@teAMDeutschland] were both used to get online supporters in contact with each other and to react to their comments or critiques.

Twitter proved to be a very successful channel for the distribution of social objects (after Hugh MacLeod). Most of the time these social objects were not content designed by the campaign but content that was either created by supporters or party candidates who strayed from the official CI.

Twitter proved also to be a very useful backchannel to campaign events. It was possible for supporters and critics alike to follow and comment on campaign events, political TV shows or the debate between Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel and the SPD candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier through Twitter. This proved to be valuable addition to classical campaign events.

Still, the experiences with Twitter during the campaign were not completely unproblematic. One of the biggest issues raised through the widespread adoption of Twitter was a sudden surge in negative campaigning. The content that was distributed the widest through Twitter was mostly negative in nature or contained attacks on the the political opponent. This was true for all political parties. This leads to fundamental questions about the political use of social media and how we can avoid that widespread political use of social media leads to a surge in negative campaigning.

So how are the Twitter efforts of these campaigns to be evaluated. Did they decide the election? Probably not. Personally I think the most important element in the political twittering of 2009 was the active learning process that it started in the party CDU. In the final account it is nor all that important which campaign did use Twitter the best or had the most followers. In the end it matters which political party is able after a campaign to clearly articulate lessons learned and to establish processes that guarantee perpetual learning and prototyping to ensure that said party keeps in contact with its online supporters and online critics.

This was a little appetizer to the content covered in the position paper. For a more detailed discussion of the issues raised in this presentation please have a look at the position paper itself.

Thank you.

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