Election campaigns and social networks: “Likes” are not votes

8 Sept 2021

A research group on digital democratic mobilization in hybrid media systems analyzes the activities of the competing parties and their leading candidates on Facebook and Instagram in the final phase of Germany’s general election campaign.

© imago images/Sven Simon

Dr. Jörg Hassler leads a Junior Research Group on Digital Democratic Mobilization in Hybrid Media Systems (DigiDeMo) in the Department of Media and Communication at LMU. In the final phase of Germany’s general election campaign, he and his team are following and analyzing the activities of the competing parties and their leading candidates on Facebook and Instagram. The first of their weekly reports appears on the project’s website today – and it contains some surprises.

Dr. Hassler, why are the parties and their leading candidates placing so much emphasis on social networks in the election campaign?

Jörg Hassler:
This development has to do with the transformation of the media landscape. Prior to this, election campaigns took place online and offline – but recent years have seen an increasing degree of hybridization between the two spheres. Candidates post something online, other media pick it up and make it available to a wider public, which then reacts to it on social media. When Armin Laschet, the CDU’s candidate for Chancellor, was caught laughing on camera during his visit to one of the areas affected by the floods in July, the resulting image was provoked a shitstorm. – That’s a typical example of this process.

Which of the parties is leading the pack on social networks at the moment?

Hassler: On Facebook, as in previous elections, the AfD is streets ahead of all the other parties. The party has more followers than CDU and SPD combined. This dominance is further confirmed by the fact that their leading candidate Alice Weidel is in first place, and receives lots of reactions to her posts. On Instagram, the Greens are in the lead, followed by the FDP. – Devotees of Instagram are on average younger than Facebook users.

Do you expect this picture to be reflected in the final result?

Hassler: In previous elections, high rates of interaction have never been reflected in a correspondingly favorable result in Germany. – And indeed the latest polls show little correlation with the sentiments expressed on social networks. The SPD has so far failed to produce an effective Facebook strategy, and on Instagram the number of interactions is low. Nevertheless, conventional opinion polls indicate that their candidate Olaf Scholz has built up a lot of momentum in recent weeks.

Why are the AfD’s candidates and their supporters so active on social networks?

Hassler: In many of its posts, the AfD criticizes the mass media, which they accuse of being biased against the party. – Facebook offers the party an alternative channel for its views. In addition, those who follow the AfD on Facebook seem to be more active than the advocates of other parties. We don‘t yet have accurate figures, but the indications are that they are also more likely to post comments on the webpages of their opponents.

In the last election for the Bundestag, only about 50% of the candidates had accounts on Facebook, and their posts consisted mainly of lists of engagements, selfies and press releases.

Hassler: Since then, a process of professionalization has clearly taken place. As a rule, the quality of the material that is now posted on social media corresponds to that of a flyer, a mail circular or a campaign poster. We carried out a comparative analysis of the posts assembled in our first batch of data. This revealed that many posts appeared in virtually identical forms on Facebook and Instagram. Owing to the differences in formatting specifications between the two platforms, this requires careful selection of photos and videos. We found very few rush jobs or indications of improvisation.

How does your live analysis work?

Hassler: It’s not particularly complicated. We focus on a quantitative, manual content analysis. That works like an opinion poll, but instead of conducting interviews by phone, we ask student assistants to ‘put questions’ to the texts. Are the leading candidates named in the posts? Are they depicted in the photographs? We then use a code book to transform the information into numbers. On the basis of these data, we can repeatedly query the material, and determine whether or not it reveals instances of negative campaigning, for example.

How exactly does this work?

Hassler: The party or parties in government normally appeal to their track record. They emphasize how much they have accomplished in the period since the last election, and they campaign on the basis of the slogan “you know what to expect”. Parties in the opposition usually choose an aggressive strategy and present hypothetical scenarios describing what they would have done differently. For example, a few years ago, the SPD used posters featuring sharks and bearing the slogan “The sharks of the financial world would vote for the FDP“. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, election campaigns were far rougher affairs. Under Chancellor Merkel, the CDU campaign has always focused on the government’s performance.

Have you detected any evidence of the deployment of bots, misinformation, populism or targeted adverts to influence voters on social media?

Hassler: In our view, bots have not played any role. But there are studies that have uncovered cases of the purchase of “likes” and followers. Fake news is unlikely to appear on the central platforms that we follow. Misinformation tends to be propagated via channels that are more closely linked to particular parties. We have come across only one post – relating to the frequency of positives detected by rapid coronavirus tests – which was highly inaccurate, to say the least. Populism rarely turns up, and when it does appear, it is articulated by the AfD and Die Linke. These days, adverts addressed to specific target groups are used by all parties.

What about attempts by PR firms to influence specific sectors of the electorate, akin to the activities of Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential election in the US and in the Brexit referendum that same year?

Hassler: PR agencies have also made efforts to influence the outcome of elections in Germany, but in comparison with these the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica was a veritable earthquake. But the legal guidelines relating to digital communication are tougher here. Moreover, unlike the case in the US, the parties do not have the financial resources to invest in more elaborate forms of voter profiling. In this country, the election campaign effectively takes place in the mass media, and social networks only play a complementary role.

Dr. Jörg Hassler

In what areas do the candidates need to brush up their web/online presence?

Hassler: Politicians are careful to employ a style of communication that is close to that of classical public speaking, which makes their posts sound less authentic. Many also have problems with the directness that is typical of exchanges on social networks.

The three major goals in election campaigns are information, interaction and mobilization, e.g. appeals for donations. At present, the parties are almost entirely focused on information, and their presentations on social media are dominated by programmatic issues and their personal schedules during the campaign. They shy away from more direct engagement and argument, presumably because Facebook is notorious for the ease with which discussions can go off the rails. – So there’s room for improvement between now and the next election.

Interviewer: David Lohmann

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