Roundtable: "Social media is like a playground"
Two politicians and a journalism professor discuss the Youth Barometer's findings on the role of social media in the political process, e-voting and the US election.
Do the Internet and social media already play a relevant role in Swiss politics today?
Flavia Kleiner (FK): Yes, I would say their relevance is growing all the time. But there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Lukas Reimann (LR): You're right about that, but these days social media is already reaching different and significantly more people than traditional word of mouth. Moreover, unlike communication via traditional media, it allows a much more intensive dialogue with the public. And it enables the direct mobilization of voters. You can make a targeted address to supporters on a specific topic. That is much more direct than a newspaper interview.
Otfried Jarren (OJ): I think that social media can influence and shape public opinion, especially when it comes to setting the agenda and with its rapid response to events.
To what extent does an e-campaign differ from a traditional campaign?
LR: There are fewer direct debates between political opponents. The campaign concentrates too much on mobilizing and activating its own sympathizers. This means candidates are preaching to the converted.
FK: The communication and speed are different, and content must be ported more trenchantly. Political campaigns on social media are a 24/7 opportunity. But anyone who thinks they can do this just a little bit on the side between stops at the podium and hanging up posters would be better off leaving it alone.
Only 19 percent of young people in Switzerland believe that Facebook, Twitter and online blogs are honest. 70 percent believe these channels can be manipulated. What does this low level of credibility mean for politics and politicians?
OJ: Social media's potential for manipulation and low level of credibility in the area of political information are making politicians aware of the major importance of the traditional mass media, especially the SRG channels, as well as the press. Another area of the Youth Barometer shows that young people trust Swiss radio and TV, NZZ and Tages-Anzeiger (Swiss publications) the most. Independence and journalistic professionalism are important features for social communication and differentiate it from personal or group communication.
LR: As a politician, it puts my mind at ease that young people are so skeptical. It is much easier to manipulate people online than in other political arenas, for example by purchasing likes or providing anonymous comments. It's a positive thing that young people have recognized this…
FK: …And it reminds us that true credibility is a problem everywhere in life. We should all fight this problem online by expressing ourselves with authenticity.
Like in real life, there are plenty of strong interest groups online, too.
88 percent of those surveyed believe there are many trolls online who only want to be provocative and have a negative impact. How do we manage to have an objective and civil discussion in spite of this?
FK: Anyone who lets trolls control the field has already lost. There are two things that help against trolls, and only in combination: facts and follower power. We deployed people from Operation Libero – sympathizers with our movement – to search through social media and give fact-based answers to trolls, counter their false statements, speak in clear language, but never turn impolite.
LR: The trolls' complete lack of restraint is at times extremely fierce due to their presumed anonymity. On the other hand, you can't ignore them completely: They're also a barometer for the real public mood and people's innermost convictions. For that reason, you have to pay attention to them, as unpleasant as it may be – especially for politicians.
Only 35 percent of young Swiss people believe that Facebook, Twitter or online comments help uncover conspiracies in powerful companies, the government or the military. That number is much higher in the US, Brazil and Singapore. Why?
OJ: It's an interesting phenomenon. Presumably, social media users are becoming increasingly aware that common goals cannot be pursued over the long term there either – only the goals of certain groups, at best. As in real life, there are plenty of strong interest groups online, too!
FK: Although social media is global, it always needs to be seen in a local context as well. It is used in some other countries far more intensively – and more politically – than here in Switzerland. In South America this may be the most appropriate place to express your opinion: Politics there is becoming an online happening and an online statement. For example, people in Venezuela posted pictures of their ink-covered thumbs to show that they had voted. The political and media work on social media is lagging somewhat behind in Switzerland.
LR: At the same time, the diversity of opinions has certainly become more developed via the Internet in the US, Brazil and Singapore than in Switzerland. Here we already had a wide variety of citizen initiatives before the Internet age thanks to the direct democracy and popular initiatives, and small groups were also able to have a large impact.
A growing number of young people report bullying on Facebook. In 2011 it was 11 percent, with that number growing to 39 percent by 2016. Does the government need to play a bigger role here?
FK: Social media is just as real a place as a playground, and any bullying here needs to be judged accordingly. The government can shed light on it and judge punishable actions. But I also think that the community needs to play an important role here – just like in real life. Public pressure, friends and NGOs need to reprimand troublemakers and demand civility.
LR: That's similar to how I see it. The government should not become the Internet police and issue fines for Facebook posts. But shedding light on the subject is important. And criminally relevant posts should be reported, of course.
OJ: I assume that social rules and norms will establish themselves through the interventions of users and by the market, because providers want "satisfied" users, after all. However, there is a massive conflict of norms, for example, when providers are liable in American culture and are active in European markets. Forms of co-regulation make sense, meaning the cooperation of independent regulatory agencies in developing the rules and norms as well as their implementation. There also needs to be a legal framework. Private companies do not want to submit to any public entities, but there is a lack of entities for self-regulation. In this sense, the government needs to act.
The government should not become the Internet police and issue fines for Facebook posts.
Can the Internet bring a younger electorate back to the ballot box?
FK: Absolutely. Part of young people's lives now plays out in social media. Therefore, we need to collect these potential voters right at that point of contact, pursue new communication channels and prepare content that is suitable for social media. Furthermore, we need to be aware that interaction is what counts in social media. There is no one-way communication as is often the case with political work.
LR: And you need to speak young people's language to reach them. The Easyvote app is a good example. It simplifies politics and makes it easy to understand while explaining things in a neutral and factual way – making voting easier for young people.
OJ: In my opinion, there is a wide variety of reasons for participating or not participating in elections and voting, and all of them have to do with the media. The political institution system with its intermediaries has to be present in everyday politics. But this is rapidly changing. Swiss parties in particular are clearly having problems with acceptance.
Is social media truly so important in the US election, or is it just media hype?
LR: Selling Obama as a social media star was a clever aspect of his presidential campaign. But the billions in support were not donated online. Candidates who were not previously well known – like Ron Paul – were able to heavily expand their influence thanks to social media.
Should e-voting be introduced?
LR: Only for Swiss nationals abroad! The opportunities for manipulation are too great, and the system is not yet mature. Time and again there are serious problems in other countries, which could destroy people's trust in democracy.
FK: I'm following the efforts in Estonia and some communities in Switzerland with great interest, but I haven't made up my mind yet.
OJ: E-voting requires institutional trust. Political institutions also live from their visibility, from collective records, and act through their immediacy. They are in no way anonymous. This is the hallmark of a democratic system.
Is the Internet producing a new, louder, more simplistic type of politician?
OJ: Hardly. But there have always been personalities who have tried and continue to try to define the political issues. However, setting the agenda in no way means influencing how political decisions are being made. Moreover, the diversity of channels is once again reducing the visibility of individual statements.
LR: It's true that there have always been politicians in the analog world, too, who were louder than everyone else. But Internet-savvy politicians often recognize people's real problems faster and more precisely than those who discount the importance of the Internet. If they make something of that, it can give them a decisive advantage.
FK: Clearly social media rewards those users who attract attention. However, I'm convinced that you can also attract attention with good political communication that is brief, catchy and honest.
There is no one-way communication with social media as is often the case with political work.
Since 2010, the Credit Suisse Youth Barometer has worked to determine the top ten problems in Switzerland as young people see them. What stands out for you?
LR: Immigration, a lack of integration and foreign infiltration are ongoing issues for young people – and rightfully so – and they are in the spotlight even more now. Young people experience these problems close up and personal: in school, in public transportation, when they go out or search for an apprenticeship. Many young people don't understand why the majority of government doesn't respond with a more restrictive policy on foreigners and immigrants.
OJ: The concerns vary in accordance with the major themes on the political agenda. The shifts reveal that the political climate and current affairs are being recognized. At the same time, there are topics that remain on the problem agenda. People respond rather pragmatically to some of the heated “problem” topics in the political system, like the EU, refugees, immigration and foreigners.
FK: I've noticed that people continue to regard retirement provision as a major problem, and the medium and long-term financing of our state retirement provision is in fact at risk. It's obvious that we need to develop reasonable proposals quickly. Aside from that, I have noticed that European issues are no longer central – perhaps because young people have grown up with the benefits of living in Switzerland in the midst of Europe and are not fully aware of the current threat to this achievement.