Researching Candidates’ Use of Twitter During the European Parliamentary Elections
Edited By Alex Frame, Arnaud Mercier, Gilles Brachotte and Caja Thimm
Hailed by many as a game-changer in political communication, Twitter has made its way into election campaigns all around the world. The European Parliamentary elections, taking place simultaneously in 28 countries, give us a unique comparative vision of the way the tool is used by candidates in different national contexts. This volume is the fruit of a research project bringing together scholars from 6 countries, specialised in communication science, media studies, linguistics and computer science. It seeks to characterise the way Twitter was used during the 2014 European election campaign, providing insights into communication styles and strategies observed in different languages and outlining methodological solutions for collecting and analysing political tweets in an electoral context.
9. Twitter during the 2014 European Elections in Germany – Analyzing politicians’ campaigning strategies (Thimm, Caja / Einspänner-Pflock, Jessica / Anastasiadis, Mario)
This chapter examines the different tweeting strategies of the electoral candidates in Germany during the EU election 2014. Based on 8219 tweets, quantitative and qualitative analyses are carried out in order to find out about the ways EU candidates convey their messages on Twitter. Are classic forms of campaign communication still central to political advocates in the social media world or have these been extended or substituted by new digital forms of communicating?
9.1 Mediatized politics and the European elections
Since the advent of the internet questions of its potential impact on all levels (micro, meso, macro) and all actors have been at the very core of many studies in political and communication science (Kamps, 2007, Strömbäck, 2008, Schweitzer & Albrecht, 2011, Vowe, 2013). In this respect, the appropriation of the internet by political parties and politicians, especially as a tool for refining political campaigning strategies, is becoming more important. Even though “there is still a lively debate about whether e-campaigning replicates the patterns of offline campaigning or contributes to a fundamental change in the democratic discourse, there is little doubt that the internet is increasingly important as a tool for political parties and candidates to provide information and stimulate political engagement” (Vergeer, Hermans, Sams, 2011, 478).
Whereas in the pre-internet era, political campaigning clearly was uni-directional (Norris, 2000), social media can serve as a technical infrastructure in which the communicative gap between the political sphere and the voters can be diminished (Carpentier, 2011, Bürger and Dorn-Fellermann, 2014). Besides, social media enhance the political actors’ possibilities to bypass traditional mass media gatekeepers and to address potential voters directly (Lilleker and Jackson, 2011). Also, social media like Facebook and Twitter play a crucial role for the ongoing personalization of politics and political campaigning (Enli and Skogerbø, 2013). More and more political actors utilize these digital tools as an enhanced←197 | 198→ possibility to address voters and to communicate key messages, especially during times of elections. Social media have become integrated parts of professionalized and strategic political campaigning communication.
Since the very first one in 1979, the EU elections have always attracted less voter participation and media attention than national elections (de Vreese et al., 2006, Giebler and Wüst, 2011). For many voters the EU election serves very much as a proxy for national issues (Marsh, 1998, Brunsbach et al. 2011). Reif and Schmitt (1980) even characterize the EU election as a second order election, because a lot of voters go to the polls with a view to national issues rather than European politics. This also refers to a periodically diagnosed lack of public legitimation of European politics, actors and institutions, not least reflected in low election turnouts in a lot of the EU member states. This deficit is also linked to the fact that more and more decision-making processes are being transferred from national parliaments to the European level, whereas the formation of political will is still closely linked to national issues in the respective EU member states. This also leads to widespread ignorance among voters regarding supranational party alliances as well as most politicians on the EU level, who remain almost unknown to a major part of the European public sphere. Against this backdrop, all political actors on the EU level require increased communication efforts to inform voters, to get in dialogue, and to justify itself.
The high fragmentation of the European public sphere in terms of language, cultural, or economic differences, means that political campaigning is challenging for political actors and institutions alike. Social media like Facebook or Twitter raise questions as to whether the digital public sphere online can bring forth a supranational European public, or if the digital public sphere should rather be described as an even more fragmented accumulation of several coexisting national publics.
The internet, and especially social media, provide political actors with communication tools, which can help to bridge the gap between EU politics and voters. The aim of this paper is to assess patterns of politicians’ Twitter activity in terms of political campaigning by drawing on distinct qualitative results gained from the analysis of politicians’ tweets.
9.2. Twitter and political campaigning
By keeping up with their responsibility to create public interest and to inform about political decision making processes, politicians using social media contribute to making EU politics more tangible (Bieber and Schwöbel, 2011). The micro blogging platform Twitter has become an increasingly relevant tool for political←198 | 199→ campaigning. Its use can be analysed as part of an ongoing process of modernization and mediatization of political communication in general and campaigning in particular, in which new communication technologies are being adopted by candidates, parties, political communication strategists and voters. As Bruns and Highfield (2013) state, the adoption of social media is a global trend for national, regional, local and international elections alike. Social media visibility nowadays is one key factor to electoral success.
Whereas in the US, Barack Obama already started using Twitter during his 2008 campaign, Europeans have taken more time to adopt Twitter for political communication activities. During the EU election 2009 for example, Twitter was only rarely used for political campaigning. Within five years, Twitter has gained more and more relevance as a tool for monitoring and participating in the public discourse among politicians and citizens alike. It is Twitter’s affordance of rapid information distribution and the possibility it gives users to share news and arguments that are influencing the digital discourse. Drawing on existing research (Larrosa-Fuentes, 2015, Thimm et al., 2016) it can be assumed that especially during times of election politicians use Twitter as a “public stage” in order to advertise their campaign goals. They do this strategically, for example by uploading pictures from campaign events or tweeting personal status updates and thus appear to be approachable.
In Germany, about 56 million people (79,5 % of the population) use the internet (Frees and Koch, 2015) and 67 % of them (36 million) actively use social networks (Bitkom, 2013).
Compared to other EU countries, especially France or Spain, Twitter in Germany has not yet carved out its niche, even though public and media attention is growing and Twitter usage seems to increase continuously. Regarding Twitter usage statistics, however, it seems difficult to gain reliable numbers since different measurements and methods exist. Different studies lead to varying results ranging from 3.8 million users (Statista, 2013) to 10 million (b4p, 2014). Another study distinguishes active and passive users (ARD/ZDF 2014, n=1434). According to this, 9 % (5 million) of the German internet users connect to Twitter less than once a week and 5 % (2,8 million) use the micro blogging platform every week. The second method by which Twitter usage is measured is based upon the analysis of the Twitter users’ account information and aggregates the given information about time zone, language and location. However, as it is not mandatory to specify such information when using Twitter, the respective data is fragmentary. This leads to significantly lower results regarding user statistics from these studies compared to the aforementioned ones. For example, calculations from PeerReach (2013)←199 | 200→ state a Twitter penetration rate for Germany of 1 %, which is only around half a million active Twitter users.
A closer look at the adoption of Twitter by German politicians with a mandate for the National Parliament in 2013 (around 10 months before the EU election) reveals that almost four fifths of Green Party members the parliament had a Twitter account (79,4 %), followed by The Left Party (65,3 %), the Free Democrats (61,3 %), the Social Democrats (50,7 %) and the Christian Democrats (39,7 %) (Fuchs, 2013) (Figure 1). This adds up to 328 politicians out of 620 members of the German Parliament in 2013 who use Twitter.
Figure 9.1: Twitter adoption in the German National Parliament in July 2013 in % (Fuchs, 2013, ©hamburger-wahlbeobachter.de)
The numbers show that compared to the “average citizens” MEPs in Germany () can be regarded as more active Twitter users. Among German parliamentarians, the usage of the micro blogging platform as a tool for political campaigning seems common. Noticeable is that the EU Election, which took place in May 2014, only caused a marginal increase in the adoption of Twitter on the national level.
9.3 Analyzing campaign strategies of German EU-candidates on Twitter
The data of the present study consist of tweets sent by the German candidates during the 2014 European Election. They were collected three weeks before and one week after the EU election day (4th of May until 1st of June, 2014). This time frame was chosen in order to document not only tweets during the “hot” phase in the run-up to the election day but also during the following week when the election results are discussed on Twitter. Hence, the data do give some insights←200 | 201→ into the more general relation between Twitter as a communication tool and permanent campaigning.
The tweets were collected via Twitter’s streaming and search APIs with the help of the open source solution SNFreezer (http://sourceforge.net/projects/snfreezer/). After the data collection, the tweets went through a process of data cleaning and were then analyzed using a combination of quantitative (SPSS) and qualitative tools (QDA Miner).
In the following section, we first give a quantitatively focused overview of the candidates’ activity on Twitter during the election, before we finally turn to the qualitative analyses and assessment of their communication strategies.
9.3.1 German EU Politicians’ Twitter activity
Altogether, 8.219 tweets were collected from a total of 106 German candidates, from which, however, only 68 were tweeting actively (see table 1 for an overview of the data obtained). Even though using Twitter nowadays is clearly more established among politicians than during the EU election 2009, there is still only a fraction of the German EU candidates who use it for campaigning purposes.
Tableau 9–1: Tweets collected during the EU Elections 2014 in Germany
Number of candidates in national corpus
Number of candidates on Twitter
% of candidates on Twitter
Number of candidates tweeting during period
% of candidates’ accounts tweeting during period
Number of tweets sent by candidates
Average tweets per candidate tweeting
63 % of the German EU candidates owning a Twitter account were actively tweeting during the evaluation period. Candidates from the major parties were most active: The Christian Democrats (CDU) rank on top with 20 active candidates, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party both have 17 candidates tweeting actively, while the Free Democrats (FDP) have only four, the Left Party two and the extreme Right (NPD) only one candidate tweeting actively. This distribution of candidates’ Twitter activity also reflected the parties’ distribution of seats in the EU parliament, which was led by the CDU (29 seats), SPD (27 seats) and the Green Party (11 seats).←201 | 202→
The results reveal that particularly the progressive and rather left-leaning parties, such as the Pirate Party, or the Green party, have been most active on Twitter during the EU campaign. However, in contrast to analyses of politicians’ tweeting during the EU election 2009 in the Netherlands (Vergeer et al., 2011), our study shows that there is also a considerable number of politicians from the established or rather conservative parties, such as the Social or Christian Democrats, tweeting (see table 2).
Tableau 9–2: List of the top 10 German EU candidates based on the tweets sent during the election campaign.
While all top candidates of the major parties were tweeting, namely David McAllister from the Christian Democrats (CDU), Martin Schulz from the Social Democrats (SPD), and Rebecca Harms from the Green Party, the top candidates of the smaller and more polarizing parties like the new (eurosceptic) party Alternative for Germany (AfD, Bernd Lucke) or the far right party NPD (Udo Voigt) did not tweet (although both of them had a Twitter account). Even though these parties were tweeting via their official party accounts (such as @AfD_Bund) or had single candidates who tweeted (e.g. Jens Pühse from the NPD, also see below in section 3.2), these findings confirm the research of Vergeer et al. (2011) that fringe parties, especially the right wing, did not try to compensate their relatively low coverage in traditional mass media (airtime and newspapers) on Twitter. In this respect the smaller parties’ top candidates still fail to use Twitter←202 | 203→ as an alternative way to bypass traditional gatekeeping mechanisms and to reach out for potential voters directly.
9.3.2 Patterns of politicians’ Twitter usage during the European Election campaign 2014
The broader political context in which the EU election 2014 took place was marked by the financial crisis in parts of Europe and the general strengthening of Eurosceptic and anti-European sentiments. The election results in some countries reflected these tendencies by giving anti-European parties a majority of the votes: In France for example, the right-wing Front National came in first with 25 %, and in England, the anti-European party UKIP gained 27 % of the votes. In Germany, Eurosceptic and anti-European parties like the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) and the right wing extremist National Party (NPD) stood for election but both failed in their goals, since only 7 % of the votes went to the AfD and 1 % to the NPD.
In the following paragraphs, we present findings from our qualitative analyses of the EU candidates’ tweets, which point to consistent patterns of Twitter usage with respect to campaign communication. Hereby, we less focus on the candidates’ topical contributions to EU politics but more on the strategies and mechanisms of their Twitter communication. Building on categorizations of traditional campaigning strategies but by taking into account the specifics of the micro blogging environment, the following categories of Twitter campaigning can be identified:
• Passive Twitter presence
• Informing & broadcasting
• On-the-scene and live-reportage
• Negative campaigning
• Creating mini-publics
• Interacting on the public Twitter stage
• Emphasizing and establishing supranational alliances
(1) Passive Twitter presence
A large number of the German EU candidates who had a Twitter profile were inactive and did not tweet at all during the evaluation period. Interestingly, the inactive or “alibi” accounts, often received tweets from other Twitter users nevertheless. One particularly interesting case is that of Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (@Lambs←203 | 204→dorff), top candidate of the Free Democrats (FDP) and a well-known member of the European Parliament. Although this candidate has a Twitter profile he did not send a single tweet during the election campaign 2014, but received a lot of tweets in return: Within the four weeks evaluation period, 509 tweets were directly addressed to or mentioning @Lambsdorff. Apart from that, 114 tweets contain the hashtag #Lambsdorff and 712 tweets the keyword “Lambsdorff” (without #). The altogether 1335 tweets mentioning the politician’s name (with or without the @- or #-operator) indicate that Lambsdorff is a key figure in German Euro-politics and hence a person of interest to the Twitter public. In fact, compared to the other 106 politicians in the data set, Lambsdorff is ranked amongst the top 10 German EU candidates receiving the most attention on Twitter although being the only one of them who did not send a single tweet during the corresponding period (see table 3).
Tableau 9–3: List of the top 10 German EU candidates based on tweets they received during the campaign
When looking at the tweets addressing Lambsdorff, it becomes evident that they often refer to the politician’s offline campaigning activities. Media accounts or journalists report about Lambsdorff’s statements in interviews or during campaign events, such as the party congress of the FDP (marked with #fdpbpt – “FDP party congress”). Affiliated party accounts or fellow politicians praise Lambsdorff←204 | 205→ in their tweets and often underline their arguments with multimedia content, e.g., @OlliLuksic and @FDP_Saar tweeted on May, 11th 2014:
“Alexander Graf Lambsdorff at the Party Congress in Dresden, Germany: serious, competent, sympathetic [inserted link to a YouTube clip from the party congress]”.
In addition, citizens comment on the politician’s public appearance by using rhetorical devices such as polemic or sarcasm:
“Populist #Lambsdorff warns against populists [inserted link to a news website]” (@pukki01, tweet sent 12 May, 2014)
“This #FDP demonstrates every day that they quite rightly got thrown out of the Parliament! [inserted link to a news website] #TTIP #Lambsdorff” (@DerRotschopf, tweet sent 15 May, 2014)
These brief examples show that even if a politician does not use his or her Twitter account actively for tweeting, just having a Twitter profile appears to be an important aspect of a digital campaigning strategy. Even if a politician does not use Twitter to actively communicate or engage in discussion, a Twitter account allows for being virtually present and connected and therefore “networkable” within the political Twitter sphere. In this respect a Twitter account is at least a symbolic representation of a politician – which is particularly important during election times – and enhances the politician’s visibility within the digital public sphere.
(2) Informing & Broadcasting
One of the candidates’ most favorite Twitter activity patterns is the distribution of information relating to their campaign activities and events. This finding is in line with studies on politicians’ Twitter usage in regional or national elections (Broersma and Graham, 2012, Thimm et al., 2014, 2016). Twitter is mainly used as a tool to distribute news and information. Politicians broadcast information to their followers in order to show that they are actively involved in the campaign and to stay visible in the digital public. Here is a typical example of a tweet sent by a politician of the Social Democrats (@Groote, Matthias Groote).←205 | 206→
Figure 9.2: Tweet of Matthias Groote “Brief pit stop in the office. Refilling the material. After that to Dötlingen to the AfA regional conference north [inserted link to Foursquare]”
Overall, this pattern shows that some politicians use Twitter as a broadcasting medium, or as Vergeer et al. (2011, p. 469–497) put it, “the social medium devolves into a traditional uni-directional medium, not so much in its technical architecture but in its actual use”. It seems that the candidates’ Twitter accounts are predominantly used for “informing citizens, and not for being informed by citizens, or to communicate” (ibid.). As Thimm et al. (2012, 2016) show, this broadcasting strategy can also be described as the topical-informative tweeting style. This style refers to an activity pattern which is characterized by the intense usage of hyperlinks to external sources and a lack of mentioning or retweeting to others via the @- and RT operators. The information sharing and broadcasting style represents one of most frequently used patterns of political campaigning, as it is closely linked to self-presentation and self-staging as a politician. Consequently, the broadcasting style tends to come with a rather low proportion of interaction or dialogue with the voters.
(3) On-the-scene and live-reportage
Closely linked to the information broadcasting pattern, a lot of candidates employ a strategy of “live reporting” from campaign events or other occasions they choose to tweet about. This on-the-scene and live-reportage pattern reflects Twitter’s relevance as a real time medium for instant communication. This strategy is characterized by the expansion of the limited text format of 140 signs by including links, videos or pictures from external sources. Due to these system options, politicians often illustrate their activities by adding photos to their tweets. One particular effect of this pattern is to allow backstage insights in real time. The tweet displayed below give a good example for this strategy. It was posted by Jean-Claude Juncker, leading candidate of the German conservative group, and shows himself and his counterpart from the socialist group, Martin Schultz, waiting for the TV duel to start:←206 | 207→
Figure 9.3: Tweet of Jean-Claude Juncker before a TV duel
However, the pattern is not limited to live reporting. It also includes tweets, which suggest an almost-live participation in the politicians’ actions, as another example of Jean Claude-Juncker visiting a construction site in Athens demonstrates:
Figure 9.4: Tweet of Jean-Claude Juncker from a construction site in Greece
Although such insights are unquestionable elements of strategically planned communication, they reveal perspectives, which the traditional media usually do not offer, not least because of journalists deciding if such a piece of information is newsworthy. In this respect, the on-the-scene and live-reportage pattern very much represents the empowerment of political actors in terms of bypassing traditional journalistic gatekeepers.
Another Twitter campaigning strategy, directly connected to Twitter’s functionality and the politicians’ empowerment to bypass traditional media gatekeepers, can be described as politicians’ self-promotion. A lot of research suggests that this pattern is among the most commonly used during election campaigns (Grant et al., 2010, Larsson & Kalsnes, 2014).
“Now in Potsdam together with @schierack_cdu and Christian Ehler (MEP) at the opening event on the municipal- and #Europeanelection! Thank you for the invitation:) #CDU” (@davidmcallister, David McAllister, Christian Democrats, tweet sent 5 May, 2014)
Self-promotion via Twitter allows politicians to communicate political information as well as personal insights into their private lives in order to present themselves in a particularly attractive way, underlining their proximity with voters and, for example, trying to appear young and active:
Figure 9.5: Self-promotion strategy of a German EU candidate (Christian Democrat) showing his sport activity.
Additionally, their campaign teams use self-promotional tweets for retweeting, as an example from the Green politician Terry Reintke shows:
“RT @RasmusAndresen: 2 end-fifties on the future of Europe. Good that there are young candidates like @SkaKeller @JanAlbrecht @TerryReintke”
Self-promotion on Twitter is an element of the increasing personalization of politics, which has been observed for more than a decade (Holtz-Bacha, 2006). Personalization, however, must not be mistaken for a higher amount of insights into the politicians’ private lives. In fact, private tweets were rarely found in the dataset. On the one hand, this can be interpreted as an approach by the politicians to stick to the professional and ‘factual’ side of the campaign by mainly referring to political issues. On the other hand, this implies that insights into private events like for example family matters, are not part of the self-definition and self-presentational style of German politicians – at least in the Twitter public sphere.
(5) Negative Campaigning
Another strategy put forward by politicians as well as their parties’ accounts on Twitter is that of negative campaigning. In some political cultures negative campaigning is a frequently used means of putting the political opponents to the test, but it is, particularly in the German political sphere, a two-sided sword: Many voters don’t like offensive criticism during election times (Walter et al., 2013). In the present dataset two main strategies of negative campaigning can be identified: The first has a focus on political content and is strongly connected to political issues, while the second is a strategy to offend the political opponent more on a personal level.
Figure 6 shows an example of the first category, in which negative campaigning gets aligned with concrete issues and political positions. In this tweet sent by the account of the German Green Party, it is argued that Martin Schulz (Social Democrats) overtly acts as if he was against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), although his parliamentary group actually voted for it. The issue of the TTIP has been a very important and controversial discussion topic in Germany during the EU election. It was mainly the smaller and partially left-leaning parties who were against the trade partnership, while the bigger, conservative and liberal parties put arguments forward favoring TTIP. For the first mentioned, it thus became an important task to use their Twitter presence (which slightly exceeds that of the conservative parties in quantitative terms, see section 3.1 above) in order to argument against the politically more powerful.←209 | 210→
Figure 9.6: Tweet of the Green Party criticizing Martin Schultz
The second way of performing negative campaigning on Twitter can be seen as a strategy to subtly offend the political opponent on a more personal level (and less on the topical level): In a tweet sent by Daniel Caspary, EU candidate of the German conservatives (CDU) on May 14, 2014, a photo upload of a wilting green plant is hashtagged with the word “green” in different languages and spellings (including English and German). While the tweet content itself does not overtly relate to politics, however, seen in the context of 1) an EU candidate from an opposing party 2) tweeting this picture 3) during the election campaign it has to be interpreted as a political statement. In fact, subtle information in public communication is characterized by being deniable (Boyd and Marwick, 2011, 23), and the present example is definitely refutable.←210 | 211→
Figure 9.7: Subtle negative campaigning on Twitter
When we compare our findings from the EU campaign with the data collected in national or regional election campaigns in Germany (i.e., “Bundestagswahl 2013”), we find less negative campaigning in the EU data set. It seems that mutual polemic or sarcastic comments among politicians are given a more meaningful stage on the national level than on the “higher” – and maybe more anonymous European level, where factual political content seems to be more relevant than personal sensitivities. This, however, has to remain a speculation as the qualitative assessment of tweets categorized as negative campaigning cannot be outweighed with a mere quantitative argument.
(6) Creating Mini Publics
The many changes in political communication not only allow for optimistic perspectives on more political participation in all parts of the world (Tufekci and Wilson, 2012), they also point to a new challenge for politics and politicians: audiences are not easily reached anymore, as traditional mass media have lost←211 | 212→ their dominating role within public discourse. On the contrary, many claim there has been a fragmentation of the public sphere (Webster and Ksiazek, 2012). In more recent work, however, it is argued that any over-generalization might not grasp the real activities of participants in the digital public and argue for a more situated and contextualized approach (see contributions in Einspänner-Pflock et al., 2014). If we see opinion formation and debates as a central quality of political participation and political engagement, we have to regard smaller publics, such as a hashtag discussion thread, as a part of the public sphere and not as a second rate public, which has fallen victim to fragmentation (Thimm, 2016). Consequently, more and more media scholars call for a ‘rethinking of the public sphere’ (see contributions in Lunt and Livingstone 2013).
As Thimm (2016) suggests, the digital public sphere can best be conceptualized as a network of “online mini-publics” which must be understood as ‘a group of online users referring to a shared topic in a publicly visible and publicly accessible online space over a period of time, by means of individual activities such as textual or visual contributions’ (p. 227). These mini-publics can be differentiated from the perspective of initiation into (1) user-initiated mini-publics, (2) event-driven mini-publics, (3) commercially launched mini-publics and (4) institutionally/politically launched mini-publics. In terms of political campaigning the event-driven and institutionally launched mini publics are of higher relevance, because it is an integral part of politicians’ Twitter usage to try to generate online mini publics, in which potential voters can discuss and interact. Such politically-driven mini publics are mostly hashtag based. The hashtag functions as the informative technical element, which leads to certain topics and discussions in the Twitter sphere. It is the main networking element that not only connects topics but also the people participating in the respective discussions, i.e. in hashtag-communities (Thimm et al., 2016, 179). Hashtag-based mini publics can serve as political echo chambers in which a certain argumentation or a certain political position is presented and discussed. Online mini publics are intended to have a persuasive effect on the potential voters, to advocate the party’s issues and to drive the campaign. For this reason, forming hashtag-based mini publics is an integral part of the political campaigns issue management strategy, and in this respect another effort to set the agenda on Twitter.
As Martin Schulz was a endorsed by the German Social Democrats (SPD) during the EU elections 2014 with their party account @spdde, Twitter support was an expected consequence. Some hashtags were especially created for the campaign. The most prominent example is #nowschulz. This slogan was often put at the end of a tweet of Schulz (or his campaign team) and should motivate or active←212 | 213→ his Twitter followers for his campaign. This hashtag does not have a relevance for EU politics but is only used as a marker for Schulze’s campaign.
“RT @spdde: Germany is well off only when our European partners are well, too. #howareyou #nowschulz http://t.co/CWAbc9g3Ee” (@MartinSchulz, Social Democrats tweet sent 22 May, 2014)
“RT @spdde: @MartinSchulz is right: Europe needs a perspective for the middle-class #nowschulz #howareyou. http://t.co/E6Ap9egLYN” (@MartinSchulz, Social Democrats, tweet sent 22 May, 2014)
Another case is the hashtagging strategy of the new party Alternative for Germany AfD. The party’s main Twitter account @AfD_Bund served as their campaign organ on Twitter, with which they tried to make themselves part of the Twitter EU sphere. In the tweets sent from the party account the hashtag #AfD was often used together with the hashtag #EP2014 – one of the official hashtags related to the EU elections 2014 (acronym for “European Parliament 2014”). #EP2014 was also one of the most recognized hashtags during the EU election as it has been not only widely on Twitter but also in other online or offline contexts (e.g. in advertisements for the TV debate or in election posters). By linking this important hashtag with “their own” hashtag, the AfD tried to place their topics (mainly Eurosceptic arguments) in the Twitter sphere and to form a “hashtag family”. The party thus formed a mini public within the broader context of the digital public created around #EP2014.
(7) Interacting on the public Twitter stage
Creating mini-publics on Twitter is also part of candidates’ “public staging” strategy, which refers to their positive self-presentation in the digital public sphere. Two major forms of “Twitter staging” can be found, of which the first can be seen as a way of presenting oneself without an apparent substantive context, while the second is linked to political argumentation.
The following example, illustrating the first type of Twitter staging by candidates, shows a sequence of tweets referring to a TV interview with Alexandra Thein, EU candidate from the Free Democrats, sent and/or retweeted by the participating actors of the TV discussion.←213 | 214→
Figure 9.8: A sequence of acknowledgements for participating in a political TV discussion, sent and retweeted by the presenter and the politician alike.
These kinds of allegedly ‘empty conversations’, which are full of self-praise and acknowledgements, are to be seen as part of the politicians’ self-presentation strategy – formed between authorities (e.g., journalists or other politicians) within an exclusive mini-public but meant to be “followed and judged by their voters” (Einspänner-Pflock et al., 2016: 62). Thus, politicians emphasize their belonging to a certain “exclusive” group or network of people.
The second form of Twitter staging by politicians can be found in tweets that form conversations or discussions, which are settled around a certain politically relevant topic. They are mostly contextualized (and thus found by other users) by a hashtag or the @-operator, as can be seen in figure 9. In the depicted Twitter conversation, two opposing politicians discuss aspects of the European social system, i.e. youth unemployment. The discussion also refers to one of the TV debates during EU election between Juncker and Schulz (see above (4)) and is tagged with #tvduell. On the one hand, the @-operator serves as the ‘conversational anchor’ between the two discussants as the tweets thus become technically linked to their accounts and the two politicians become notified upon a reply. On the other hand, this conversation is opened up to the larger interested Twitter-community around the TV debate as it is tagged with #TVduell. The hashtag here serves as a contextual marker.←214 | 215→
Figure 9.9: EU candidates Jens Geier (Social Democrats) and Ulrich Beul (Christian Democrats) discussing aspects of the European social system on Twitter
The politicians’ strategy of connecting and presenting oneself within these kinds of content-rich discussions on Twitter does not have a mere networking function as in the exclusive mini-publics but is more focused on presenting arguments related to a certain political question. By keeping up the conversation, the politicians are also able to show their commitment and respect towards their discussants and simultaneously give insights into their own political positions.
(8) Emphasizing and establishing supranational political alliances
Political alliances between parties or parliamentary groups on the European level are not usually very well known to many voters since people feel more tied to their respective national parties and politicians. The desire to strengthen those alliances might be a reason why some politicians mark their supranational party alliance explicitly in their tweets. In the present dataset, we found candidates of the same supranational alliance who often relate and link to each other by using @-mentions, retweets, hashtags, linked multimedia content or even emoticons in order to emphasize their closeness. Rebecca Harms from the Green Party for example did a campaign event where she went from Berlin to Brussels on a boat, accompanied by other “green” politicians from the Czech Republic and from Finland.←215 | 216→
Figure 9.10: Tweet of the Rebecca Harms, “This time it worked out again with the boat! From Brussels off to Berlin with @SkaKeller @odrejliska @HeidiHautala”
Also the top candidate of the left, Gabi Zimmer, who started her Twitter account just one month before the EU elections 2014, used Twitter in order to strengthen supranational “leftist” alliances by retweeting or directly addressing party members of other European leftist parties:
“Strong message of @tsipras_eu Alexis Tsipras, candidate of European Left #TellEurope May 15, 2014” (@Gabi_Zimmer, the left, tweet sent 15 May, 2014)
Figure 9.11: Tweet of Alexis Tsipras, call to vote for the Left Party
Politicians choose this strategy to strengthen their network and to appear highly engaged within their party’s activities.
9.4 Conclusion and Outlook
As a part of the mediatization of political communication Twitter becomes more and more an established tool for strategic communicative purposes, especially during times of election campaigns. While Germany is still lagging behind other European countries regarding Twitter usage for political communication, it seems that the politicians’ usage of the microblogging tool in this regard is becoming more differentiated. What is striking is that politicians do not seem to use Twitter much to get into dialogue with citizens and voters, but predominantly to broadcast their messages to their followers and for self presentation. This leads to one of the most important consequences of social media usage within the framework of political campaigning: to bypass traditional media and journalistic gatekeepers. Social media indeed do set political actors free from structural and time-consuming limitations associated with traditional distribution channels and help them to avoid journalistic framing, for better or worse. For this reason, Twitter has become an integrated part of a strategically-organized communication←217 | 218→ environment online, which almost every political actor tries to benefit from. The more online publics grow, the more important it becomes for political actors to establish themselves within a communication infrastructure of their own, outside traditional media. Looking at Twitter in particular, future research needs to focus on the question in how intensively the microblogging platform is used and which of the patterns of political campaigning still remain relevant. One pattern of special interest is the on-the-scene and live-reportage pattern. The Twitter affiliated new application “Periscope”, a live-reporting video tool, makes it seem very likely that these patterns will be of growing importance.
In terms of European politics there is still a special demand for political communication in the European public sphere – online and offline. For these reasons, EU related Twitter communication should also be analyzed outside electoral periods, but during political day-to-day-business and EU-wide crisis situations, for example like the increasingly difficult question of how EU countries deal with the growing number of refugees from the Middle East.
It does not seem very likely that the importance of Twitter will decrease in the near future, at least not as a tool for political campaigning. More research is needed to better understand in how far Twitter can play a specific role in the European online public sphere. In this context one of the most important challenges for future research will be to focus on Twitter’s fragmentation into myriads of different online mini-publics.
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