When President Barack Obama met with Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 17, 2016, the two leaders cautioned against the fake news appearing on social media platforms and the disruptions it is causing to the national discourse. Never before had the intersection of social media and public opinion played such an important role in a U.S. election, and it is a challenge that Germany will face in its upcoming federal election in 2017. Even before the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, Merkel voiced concern that social media will play a decisive role in how the election is going to play out in Germany. She called for social media platforms to reveal their algorithms on information distribution to avoid a distortion of how people perceive things.
The challenges of social media extend beyond concerns about fake news.
Merkel fears that social media platforms could manipulate elections by intentionally mobilizing certain groups of voters. For an increasing number of people, it is more common to get news from social media—without questioning how this information is provided. For example, 51 percent of all social media users in the U.S. got information about the presidential campaigns from social media websites. The problem with this is that users mainly follow people and conversations that share their views. The dynamic is worrisome as so-called filter bubbles and echo chambers bear potential to shift the position of the entire group in a more radical direction.
In her fourth run for chancellor, Merkel cannot afford to be misled by national polling data about her stand in the public’s eye. Merkel’s concern about the influence of social media does not seem unfounded when considering that traditional polling methods failed to predict the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Data analysis from social media was more successful in predicting Donald Trump the winner. One reason for this might be that people are more willing to share information on social media than with a pollster on the phone.
Predictions of election outcomes and filter bubbles have their pros and cons. The advantages are easily accounted for: Google and Twitter are faster than traditional polling in detecting recent trends among voters and Google searches reveal honest and immediate views. The disadvantages of growing social media usage are more complex:
- all social media platforms experienced the spread of misinformation,
- content engagement differs, and
- different elections evoke different voting behaviors that cannot be treated equally in an analysis.
Thus, social media is not effective as the only measure for public opinion, but rather should act as a complement to more traditional methods.
Comparing Germany and the United States in this matter, however, is like comparing apples to oranges. Social media platforms are used by a smaller share of population in Germany (25 percent use Facebook) than in the United States (68 percent of all U.S. adults use Facebook and 21 percent of all U.S. adults use Twitter). Due to greater use of social media in the U.S., the data encompasses a larger variety of viewpoints and, therefore, may be more reflective of actual public opinion. Despite fewer users in Germany, the influence of social media within bubbles and echo chambers should not be underestimated as fringe-groups and far-right political parties have still been successful in attracting and mobilizing supporters in Germany through Facebook.
Given the smaller number of users, it is difficult to predict what role social media will play in the German election. Not only are there fewer people who could potentially be influenced by social media, there is less accuracy in using social media as a source of public opinion. Still, the impulses we saw in the U.S. election should not be discounted in Germany, and the concern of misperception through digitization should not be underestimated.
Maria Rentmeister is a research intern at AICGS during the fall and winter of 2016/17. She is currently enrolled in the North American Studies Master Program at the University of Bonn, Germany.