Sunday, September 20, 2009

The ‘Internet Manifesto’: Media Coverage and Political Campaigning 2.0

German feuilletons are currently engaged in a heated debate on the role of mass media and politics in the era of Web 2.0. It has been ignited by the ‘internet manifesto’ published by the stars of the local blogosphere (such as Markus Beckedahl, Sascha Lobo) just in time for the conclusion of the election to the German Bundestag. The German successor to the famous ‘cluetrain manifesto’ comes up with 17 provoking theses on how journalism works today. A short recap:

  • There is no such thing as a gatekeeper on the internet: the compilation, classification and publication of content is no longer tied to “media companies, research centers, public institutions,” and barriers between amateurs and professionals are getting blurred. In other words, “the Internet is a pocket-sized media empire.”
  • The Internet matches the paradigm of the process: while social networks conquer our everyday life top-down, distribution of standardized finished goods is replaced by infinite ‘multilogues’ and all content is constantly revised and only the “outstanding, credible and exceptional” attracts attention. “Quality remains the most important quality.”
  • “The Internet is the new venue for political discourse”: It allows for the active political participation of the public and amplifies “freedom, both for the individual as well as society as a whole.” Hence, the open architecture of the Internet is the “basic IT law,” “copyright becomes a civic duty” and the freedom of the press is aimed at amateurs as well, it equals “freedom of opinion.”
Indeed, a new ‘balance of power’ between German media, citizens and politics is on the horizon, as the current elections to the Bundestag prove: Citizens, politicians and political parties alike have entered Web 2.0, they blog and twitter campaign news, discuss clips on YouTube and post their favorite picture on Flickr. The stage of political discourse is now open to everybody, regardless of profession, income or prominence. Inspired by Web 2.0, German parties have equipped their 2009 campaigns with innovative ways of political participation: digital grassroots campaigning integrates citizens via virtual testimonials, mobile campaign reports, online donations. etc. The scope of participatory options is significantly enlarged, and political dialogue is definitely invigorated.

Are mass media rendered unnecessary as users generate political content and citizens and politicians communicate directly via the Internet? This strategy does not (yet) add up: Even if the Internet comes in second as a medium for political information, no party attracts more than 70.000 supporters on popular social networks. In fact, a recent survey reveals that only 20 percent of politically interested users are planning to visit the homepage of a party or politician, and less than five percent of blog readers are interested in election related blogs. Considering a total base of 60 million voters, this represents just a tiny minority of the populace. Instead, 80 percent of politically interested users rely on the online sites of traditional mass media. Thus, the Internet has established a further channel for direct communication between citizen and politician and among citizens, but in light of current statistics, the gatekeeping role of mass media is clearly still in effect, both online and offline. If quality and large audience is what counts, mass media companies relying on a team of trained journalists, a marketing and sales force, and professional production equipment should firmly remain in the pole position. Amateurs may only win the competition in niche markets or in quick on-site or authentic coverage. Accordingly, the ‘constitutive role’ of the mass media for the German democracy seems unthreatened.

As suggested by the manifesto, the regulation of the Internet has become a major issue in the current election: the fierce debate on the “Netzsperrengesetz”, a law to ban internet sites due to child pornography, has been called the wake of the political consciousness of the German Internet community. Profiles on social networks of the CDU and SPD – the parties that passed the contended bill – are still packed with negative comments from the enraged Internet community. The Pirate Party has cashed in on the netizens’ resentment to the established German party scene. It focuses solely on Internet policy and basic digital rights, such as privacy of correspondence for emails, and communicates in Web 2.0-style. Referring to the number of online campaign supporters, the Pirate Party is even excelling over the otherwise leading CDU. Nonetheless, polls reckon only with a few percent for the Pirate Party in the election to the Bundestag.

Considering today’s status quo of politics and media in Germany, the Internet manifesto may be blown out of proportion. Considering future developments, however, it offers a thrilling and optimistic foresight.

--Kathi Wimmer

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