The Internet needs to be integrated into traditional electoral campaigning logics to make a difference

Posted by gkraft on

Edited by Yana Breindl

On Monday 10th of June, Andreas Jungherr from the Department of Political Sociology at the University of Bamberg came to Göttingen to talk about the role of the Internet in electoral campaigns in the US and Germany as part of our “Internet & Society” lecture series.

For Jungherr, three narratives surrounding the role of the Internet in electoral campaigning hinder the current debate: 1) US online campaigning is the main reference point, from which German political parties’ Web use is far away, 2) When will elections be won online? 3) The Internet’s openness and decentralised architecture should lead to more horizontal and non-hierarchical forms of political communication. However the normativity and lack of empirical embeddedness of these assumptions make scientific comparison difficult.

Instead, Jungherr proposes to focus on the functions of the Internet for electoral campaigning, i.e.:
1. The Internet as a space of information
2. The Internet as an infrastructure for political campaigning
3. The Internet as a symbol for a political campaign or a candidate

Most differences between Germany and the US seem to have to do with structural and historical characteristics of electoral campaigning: highly polarized debates in the US compared to asymmetric demobilisation in Germany for instance. In the US, the Internet is used in all three functions, and has proven useful in particular to coordinate volunteers on the ground and to gather donations. For Jungherr, the main aspect here is that US political parties have identified the Internet as useful for serving long-established campaigning traditions (i.e. mobilisation on the ground and private campaign financing). As a result, Internet specialists who have already been involved in the Howard Dean campaign of 2004 were recruited to occupy central positions in the campaigning team of Obama in 2008 and 2012.

In Germany, the traditions are somewhat different and political parties’ mainly use the third, symbolic, function of the Internet. Discovering Twitter or holding electoral town meetings suits the selection logic of traditional media outlets, which provide ample space for politicians to present themselves as modern because they know how to use the Internet or to predict election results based on the number of followers on Facebook. However, a look at established parties’ Internet use shows they fail to take into account basic Internet logics such as search engine optimisation. As a result, when searching for political terms such as “energy turn” (“Energiewende”), political parties are situated far below business interests or NGOs. Political content ranks far behind personalisation or the hype around social media.

Suggested reading:

Andreas Jungherr & Harald Schoen (2013). Das Internet in Wahlkämpfen: Konzepte, Wirkungen und Kampagnenfunktionen, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen  (2012). Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, Princeton University Press.

Daniel Kreiss (2012). Taking our Country Back. The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama, Oxford University Press USA.