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Election monitor Germany 2021 - Research brief #4

Read this in German here.

It has been an interesting journey - and on Sunday, 26 September, it reaches its apex, though not its end. The post-election period of coalition negotiations will be sensitive and it may include internal party polls on possible government options. 

With the campaign almost over, we look at what the people, parties and politicians discussed online in the last months in this pre-election research brief.

Key takeaways

  • The most important issue to voters as expressed in polling - social justice - is not as extensively discussed in social media.

  • Climate is the most discussed issue and while the Green party dominates the conversation, every party is participating in this discussion.

  • The AfD continues to focus on the migration issue, even while the majority of Germans have their attention focused elsewhere.

  • Covid-19 issues are more discussed by the members of the German parliament than the parties; aside from the AfD party, it seems the other party organisations want to move the discussion on to other issues.

  • The discussion around climate is the most rational, with vocabulary expressing even policy options, while the discussion around the coronavirus pandemic is the most polarised

Dashboard infographics

The local is the national

This election is not just about the candidates for the top job of chancellor, it is about the local issues and who will enter parliament. A total of 6,211 candidates are vying for this honor this year, the most ever. 

Monitoring these local politicians matters: some are known for making controversial statements that put their party leaders in a dilemma, others have bigger social media followings than any of the national chancellor candidates, amplifying their influence and voice on their issues of interest.

Our friends at Der Tagesspiegel were right on top of getting the social media accounts of these participants in the Wahlkampf (election battle) 2021.

Check out the insightful updated version of the dashboard here!

Deep dive

Parties, politicians, people pleaser?

What is at stake this coming Sunday as people cast their ballots?
And what are these elections really about when we look beyond the hype of missing footnotes in a book, a laughing candidate in a flood-stricken region, or the controversial prosecutor's search of the finance ministry? 

In this deep dive, we turn our attention to actual, substantive topics of the election. What do people care about? And is this what the politicians and parties are actually addressing? 

Herein, we will focus on the most salient issues of our day: covid-19, climate, and migration. In looking at the social media discussion on these issues, we made several interesting discoveries.

Our key observations: 

  • Although the topic of climate change is high on the agenda for the electorate and is most associated with a certain party, the latest polls suggest that while the Greens will do twice as well as they did in the last election, they will not be able to take the chancellorship. Possibly, the success of the climate movement in mainstreaming the issue weakens the case of climate-centric parties that they are best suited to take on the issue. Today, climate is almost everyone’s concern.

  • The migration issue, on the other hand, is dominated by the AfD while it is less important than it was to most people. AfD parliamentarians have perhaps recognised this and while still talking about the issue, do so significantly less than the official party accounts.

  • Lastly, the coronavirus pandemic and the response is most discussed by the parliamentarians; the parties and the social media public talk about it less and less over time, with one exception: the AfD is continuing to highlight its opposition to the anti-pandemic measures.

  • It is interesting to note that the vocabulary used to discuss these issues is most rational in the area in which all the parties, parliamentarians, and people are participating: climate. The other areas are much more likely to see polarising language.

  • Even though it ranks fourth in importance when directly ranked, the issue of social justice (German: Soziale Gerechtigkeit) is named most often when listed amongst all important issues. However, the issue appeared less frequently in the social media discussion over the summer. Traditionally, this topic is often closely associated with the SPD – the surprise frontrunners during this year’s race. This reminds us that social media users, despite growing in numbers and diversity, are not representative of the electorate at large.

The talk of the town: Covid-19, climate, and migration

Covid-19, climate, and migration are among the most important issues for the electorate this year: the coronavirus has dominated the agenda almost right from its emergence at the beginning of 2020. Yet, since April 2021, the pandemic and its importance for the political process is on a steady decline, even as incidences are on the rise and experts warn the country is not well prepared for a fourth wave. 

Conversely, the climate crisis skyrocketed to the top of the agenda from April 2021 onward. In comparison, migration, which in the 2017 elections dominated the agenda, ranks only third in importance this time around – with considerably less importance than the other two despite a boost in attention surrounding the end of the military operation and final evacuations from Afghanistan.

Putting this in numbers, we collected over 300,000 posts from users participating in discussions about the election in Facebook groups and pages, as indicated by their use of election tags (e.g., #btw2021), or candidate or party names (since 1 June 2021). From these, over 11% discussed climate, even though we excluded many broader environmental terms so as to not conflate the issues. Nearly 8% of posts were related to covid-19, while less than 3% of posts discussed migration.

Let us take a look next at what the politicians and parties think and post about these issues in more depth at two levels, focusing also on Facebook:

  • the parliamentarians, representing elected officials probably appealing to their local voters. We collected the posts of 627 current Bundestag members’ Facebook accounts for this purpose.

  • the party branches including also the page of the main chancellor candidates, as these attempt to present the unified party and its priorities to the nation. We collected posts of official party pages at the federal and state level for this purpose.

Percent of total posts on topic made by party

Coronavirus

The electorate’s view that the pandemic is no longer the most important issue in German society is also reflected when anecdotally looking at the manifestos from the different parties in parliament. 

The party covering the virus the most is the AfD, which focuses on opposition to what it views as over-regulation and over-reach by the government.

The other parties, however, mostly focus their electoral programmes on the aftermath of the pandemic - be it how future pandemics can be better prevented or how government spending during the crisis can be refinanced. In the end, the most heated policy discussions between the parties indeed seem to have moved away from the pandemic. 

On Facebook, however, the members of parliament still post extensively about the pandemic. As a percentage of all the posts made by parliamentarians, covid-19 takes up between 14 (Greens) and 25% (FDP) of their attention, more than any other single issue. The parliamentarians in the current government (CDU/CSU and SPD) make up almost 50% of these covid-19-related posts, with the other parliamentary groups each contributing between 10-15%.


Posts about covid - party accounts vs parliamentary members

The official party accounts give less attention to covid-19, between 8 and 13%. Here, however, the AfD party posts the largest number: 30% of all party posts about covid-19 are from the AfD, ten percent more than the runner-up (the CDU).

When looking at Facebook content over time, the Greens - on both the parliamentarian and party level - post considerably less about the pandemic than the other parties. Two potential reasons for this come to mind: first, climate rather than the coronavirus is clearly their trademark policy issue and the voters are likely to assign more competency and impact to the party in this area; second, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, atypical for an opposition party, has backed almost all government regulations over the course of the pandemic and is thus less likely to establish themselves as a credible opposition concerning this policy area.

Posts about covid-19 by party in time (parliament)

In the end, the impression from looking at the manifestos is mirrored online. 

While the AfD parliamentarians currently represented in the German Bundestag post less about the pandemic than other parties, the party itself, trying to express a unified opposition against most current covid-19 policies, tries to use the pandemic to boost the party’s campaign.

This campaign likely tries to capitalise on its potential by creating an ‘electoral home’ for protest voters and members of the Querdenken movement among others, implicitly depicted in some of the keywords used by the official AfD party accounts on Facebook: “coronahysterie” (covid scare), “coronaregime” (covid regime) and “zwangsimpfung” (enforced vaccination).

Coronavirus word usage in Facebook posts (party accounts)

Words with * include variants and plural versions of the same keyword (from top to bottom): pandemic, covid, lockdown, vaccination, covid crisis, covid scare, covid deaths, covid regime, enforced vaccination

Climate

Events in the past years and months, from the Fridays for Future protest movement to worrying and deadly weather events, have pushed the climate issue to the top of the agenda. In this election, all parties – except for the AfD – agree that more needs to be done to avert the unfolding climate emergency.

Posts about climate by party in time (parliament)

The fact that climate has become the most important issue is further corroborated when looking at the words that are most often used in posts about climate - not only by the parties but parliamentarians and social media users alike.

The variations on the word ‘climate’ (German: Klima) - and the words used around it - seem to suggest that the topic is discussed rationally (e.g. klimaneutral [climate-neutral], Klimaziele [climate aims], Klimaschutz [climate protection]).

Climate word usage in Facebook posts (party and parliamentarians)

Words with * include variants and plural versions of the same keyword (from top to bottom): climate protection, climate-neutral, climate crisis, climate, climate change, climate aims, climate policy

This does not mean, however, that there are no persons skeptical of the climate crisis. When taking a closer look at the posts’ content, some skeptical comments come to the fore – they simply use more implicit allusions that can only be understood when using advanced methods like seen in our second research brief.

When looking at who is driving the discussion here, the image is more differentiated than one might initially expect. Especially when looking at the parliamentary groups, the governing parties of CDU/CSU and SPD post most, with each of the two making up for about a quarter of the posts surrounding climate policies. 

Thus, it appears they try to dominate the discourse – even for topics that would initially be more associated with other parties.

Online conversation by parliamentarians: Who puts the climate "first"?

Though, when looking at the official party accounts, climate and its political representation is clearly in the hands of the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen. The Green party publishes nearly a third of all climate-related posts.

Online conversation by official party accounts: Who puts the climate "first"?
Interestingly, the Greens do not only contribute a third of all clmate-related posts, but about a third of all posts that come from the Greens are about climate as well. Such party dominance of an issue is otherwise only associated with one other topic and party - namely migration and the AfD.
Migration

In 2017, the migration issue was largely driven by the AfD. This year, devoting substantial parts to the migration policy area has been an inherent part of all the election programmes - even as its importance to the electorate has declined.

When turning to social media, the discourse surrounding migration is clearly dominated by the AfD:

Posts about migration by party in time (parliament)

AfD parliamentarians contribute almost 50% of all posts surrounding the issue of migration. Among the 20 members of parliament posting the most about migration, all but five are from the AfD, all but two among the top ten. 

This trend is even further exacerbated when looking at the party level, with AfD party official accounts and their leadership making almost three-quarters of all migration-related posts surrounding this year’s elections. 

When we look at words preceding and following our ‘migration’ keywords on social media, this AfD dominance arguably also drives the language surrounding the issue. Within parliamentary circles and on the party-level across the country, AfD talking points are similar (e.g., Massenmigration [mass migration], Migrationswelle [migration wave], migrationsfanatisch [migration-fanatic]).

Thus, not much has changed from four years ago: the social media landscape seems to be in the hands of the AfD surrounding this particular issue. The AfD still sees it as an important issue, and while many voters agree it is an important issue amongst many, only about 13% of the electorate see it as the most pressing one.

Conclusion

Even though observers have argued that the current campaign has mostly focused on side issues and often appeared devoid of real content, the social media discourse that we looked at for this research brief, in parts, suggests otherwise. The issues of climate, covid-19, and migration are being discussed and, based on the words used around them, discussed intensively and occasionally even in a very serious manner. 

However, this does not negate our findings from previous research briefs: personalised, anti-candidate and party discourse remains strong in this election.

Success at getting your agenda discussed on social media does not equate to electoral success. In the end, our analysis over the course of the last few months has confirmed our initial assumption: social media is a two-edged sword and we should beware of its limitations, while still valuing its merits.

This work is supported by