HAMBURG, Germany — For a country that caused so many horrors in the last century, Germany today is one of the world’s most innocent. Even in the face of resurgent populism and rampant nationalism, Germans exude a quiet, stolid sense of obligation to a brighter, more integrated future at home and internationally.
Along with this sentiment comes a principled skepticism toward innovative ideas and technologies from more, let’s say, energetic countries. My parents’ generation remembers how long it took bluejeans and chewing gum to become socially acceptable here. I remember thorough debates about the pros and cons of cellphones, long after they were part of the everyday American landscape.
In this sense, social media is today’s bluejeans. While 71 percent of Americans use Facebook, Twitter and other services, only 46 percent of Germans do, according to the 2018 Global Overview by We Are Social, an internet marketing company — and that’s a big increase over just three years ago.
Such reservation has arguably been a blessing. Being late to the social media party has allowed Germans to learn from others’ mistakes.
In principle, Twitter and Facebook are fantastic tools that give voice to otherwise unheard groups and challenge mainstream views. If the news media is the fourth estate, social media is the fifth, and a welcome check on the government, private sector and traditional journalists. The likelihood that falsehoods and careless errors will be immediately exposed by swarms of social-media users has been a boon for transparency and responsibility. In this sense, Germans should welcome more social-media use.
But we also should recognize the converse, that for many social-media users, the goal isn’t credibility — it’s attention. Predictably, those two become muddled online, so that the loudest voice in the digital room is often the one with the most power and influence. As George Orwell put it: “The more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.”
From afar, this fact more than anything explains the rise of President Trump and, at almost the same time, Brexit in Britain (where social media penetration is at 66 percent), and it makes Germans wary of what might happen in their own country, should social media continue to spread.
Of course, context matters: In Germany, we don‘t face a decision as tough as in the United States or Britain did two years ago. But we have reason to worry. Germans only really began taking to social media around the time of the refugee influx; in 2017 alone, the share of Germans who use social media soared by 15 percent.
Germany’s refugee crisis has been the first issue to be debated widely on social media. And how are we doing?
I’m afraid that despite all the lessons available from other countries’ experiences, Germany is falling into the same Orwellian trap. We too have entered the vicious circle of the digital public sphere: Excitement trumps precision. Lack of precision leads to unfairness. Unfairness leads to anger. Anger again leads to a lack of precision. And so on.
One of the biggest instigators — and benefactors — of Germany’s newfound social-media rage machine has been the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials A.f.D. Its members and allies are expert in whipping up online mobs, attacking dissenters and challenging each other to be the most vitriolic. This has real-world implications: A study by researchers at the University of Warwick found that elevated social-media use by the party’s adherents in a given town or city “predicts violent crimes against refugees in otherwise similar municipalities with higher social media usage.”
The A.f.D. isn’t alone; predictably, mainstream journalists and politicians have either amped up their own online rhetoric or veered far in the other direction: In one recent instance, a comedian and talk show host called upon his audience to block thousands of Twitter users he deemed “right wing,” partly on the basis of whom they follow. Many, especially young people, applauded the move. For older generations, it’s a frightening concept — a violation of the liberal tenets of free speech and open debate that underliepostwar German society.
What worries me is that the skeptical innocence that kept Germans off social media for so long has also prevented us from learning from others’ mistakes — and now we are rushing into it headlong, angry and naïve at the same time. The result is a coarser, more violent discourse than we are ready for, and an openness to authoritarian responses on both sides. Before it’s too late, Germans need to step back from our screens and ask: Do we really want to go farther down this road?
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.
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