In the U.S., quitting Twitter and Facebook would pose a serious challenge for politicians, according to Republican strategist Alice Stewart.
German politicians have harnessed American social-media savvy. NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports that Austin, Texas-based Harris Media, which helped create Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s online presence and briefly worked with the Trump campaign, was critical in crafting polarizing social media messaging for the AfD.
Twitter lost 9 million users worldwide in the third quarter of 2018, according to the latest company earnings report.
Facebook grew during the same period in every market except Europe, where it lost a million monthly active users. But it has faced a backlash since a whistle-blower revealed in March 2018 that some 87 million people had their data improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica. It was the beginning of a months-long scandal that revealed the network was slow to respond when Russian operatives used it to spread misinformation to influence U.S. elections.
“The reason we are inundated by culturally alien [kulturfremden] peoples such as Arabs, Sinti and Roma etc. is the systematic destruction of civil society as a possible counterweight to the enemies-of-the-constitution by whom we are ruled. These pigs are nothing other than puppets of the victor powers of the Second World War….” Thus begins a 2013 personal e-mail from Alice Weidel, who in this autumn’s pivotal German election was one of two designated “leading candidates” of the Alternative für Deutschland (hereafter AfD or the Alternative). The chief “pig” and “puppet” was, of course, Angela Merkel.
Xenophobic right-wing nationalism—in Germany of all places? The very fact that observers express surprise indicates how much Germany has changed since 1945. These days, we expect more of Germany than of ourselves. For, seen from one point of view, this is just Germany partaking in the populist normality of our time, as manifested in the Brexit vote in Britain, Marine le Pen’s Front National in France, Geert Wilders’s blond beastliness in the Netherlands, the right-wing nationalist-populist government in Poland, and Trumpery in the US.
Like all contemporary populisms, the German version exhibits both generic and specific features. In common with other populisms, it denounces the current elites (Alteliten in AfD-speak) and established parties (Altparteien) while speaking in the name of the Volk, a word that, with its double meaning of people and ethno-culturally defined nation, actually best captures what Trump and Le Pen mean when they say “the people.”
Like other populists, Germany’s attack the mainstream media (Lügenpresse, the “lying press”) while making effective use of social media. On the eve of the election, the Alternative had some 362,000 Facebook followers, compared with the Social Democrats’ 169,000 and just 154,000 for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Tiresomely familiar to any observer of Trump, Brexit, or Wilders is the demagogic appeal to emotions while playing fast and loose with facts. In Amann’s account, the predominant emotion here is Angst.
For eight of the last twelve years, Germany has been governed by a so-called Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats—Merkel’s CDU in a loveless parliamentary marriage with the more conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU)—and Social Democrats. This has impelled disgruntled voters toward the smaller parties and the extremes. The effect has been reinforced by Merkel’s woolly centrist version of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative), perfectly captured in the German word alternativlos (without alternatives). It’s no accident that this protest party is called the Alternative.