Germans are hardly on social media. I wrote a piece about in-group out-group communication that talks briefly about the platforms available in Germany. The most obvious ones are the comment sections under the newspapers. In the mentioned article I recalled my experience with ZEIT online. It took me only a weekend to get blocked from the place. I also registered with Tagesspiegel. I spent little time and got also blocked there after a few weeks. The next step was WELT.
What is WELT? WELT is the third most popular political news outlet after Spiegel and Süddeutsche, and enjoys 69.8 million visits per month. It belongs to the publisher Springer, which also owns the tabloid BILD (and a myriad other papers and book publishers). BILD is technically the news outlet with the largest reach, but is usually not considered political. Springer used to be a conservative publisher and became a target of a bombing by the communist terror organisation Red Army Faction RAF in 1972.
Under Merkel the media aligned and Springer is now on the political left. However, WELT is still less screechy than the Washington Post. The sound is comparable to the Wall Street Journal.
I did not read WELT for a while because it had a monthly budget per IP for some time and their views did not clearly enough represent the views of those who actually run the show in media, culture and politics. The power elites are best represented by my usual paper ZEIT. WELT is considered a quality paper and their job is to speak to ordinary citizens. They do so with lacing the cover page with mildly conservative viewpoints.
Yes, they do call Trump a sociopath and compare him with mass murderers, but there is the occasional article that is overall pro-Israel and just makes a nasty self-righteous turn towards the end. Sometimes the White House gets praise, but purely on economic grounds. Left-wingers also want their taxes cut, but not other people’s. Sometimes even an immigrant crime story makes its way to the front page.
Because I did not read it for a while, I also did not pay attention to the comment section. A superficial look at it surprises. It seems to contradict my usual allegations that conservative voices are hardly heard anywhere because of the absurd level of censorship. People say that they want less immigration, that they like Israel, want their taxes cut, prefer less regulation, less nannying, and even favor openly the conservative party AfD.
So I felt that I could finally wrap up by blog. No, of course, not. I became suspicious and registered as a user.
The first thing that meets the eye is that there are no messages to indicate what should and shouldn’t be said. ZEIT online controls their forum with an iron fist because media types know that comment sections do more to persuade people than articles. Tagesspiegel like WELT did not offer any guidelines. So I grew used to that during my ongoing experiment.
Both Tagesspiegel and WELT check each comment before it goes up. An obvious difference is the size of both platforms. While Tagesspiegel is quick to run through a comment, WELT will have to deal with a flood of texts and each takes its time. A discussion is not possible for the time that an article remains on the front page. The big advantage of WELT is that the likes on your profile page indicate how much of what you wrote is read once a comment of yours goes through.
Did I write “once a comment goes through”? Yes, it is only a tiny, tiny fraction of your comments that will see the light. And this is what intrigues me. What is the selection based on?
Given the very small number of comments that go through, I believe that the censors make a positive selection. They don’t read everything and therefore will also never block a user. They just skim through the messages and pick what they like.
But how does the comment section then look like a conservative outpost? I see safe selects. The comments don’t contain material that is rare knowledge. What is out there is the kind of general sentiment that you cannot help spreading over the kitchen tables. People say that they vote conservative party AfD or that they want less immigration. Important is that it does not get too specific and that no individual member of the elite is called upon to do this or that. There is the occasional oddball that makes conservatives look stupid. Jokes are completely absent because the messaging of jokes cannot be controlled and people are more likely to be convinced with jokes than with long-winding texts.
This is what Noam Chomsky famously called the “controlled opposition.” You give the impression that some criticism is heard, but you don’t show the full range of options or new information. Criticism looks repetitive and dull. The German left repeats over and over again that the right “would not have answers.” Of course, Clinton did the same, but Trump was putting out his policy papers online and could leapfrog the media. In Germany information is so tight that people who are not actively seeking will come to the conclusion that there are no ideas but the “throw tax money at it” solution for every problem. I understand that some Americans are also caught in that CNN bubble which makes them believe there was no Trumpian policy. They simultaneously believe that he is enforcing fascism and also that he does nothing but eat fast food and watch TV. Imagine almost an entire country in such a CNN-like bubble.
What is ironic about this is that for the lack of policy discussions German media almost exclusively talks about foreign countries, much like the media in totalitarian regimes. When it does talk about German politicians – which is different from policies – they talk a lot about their calendars: who meets whom where. This is why you see so many international summits that all have no results but vague “declarations” of their intentions. They come with smiles and photos. And the media outside the English-speaking world is reporting things like when the plane lands, what is discussed on the lavish dinner table, the general “topic”, the location of the conference etc. As if they worked. In summer the parliament goes on holiday and outside the Putinesque Merkel-holiday reports the media openly admits that it turns to other yellow press rubbish. This is called “Sommerloch”, German for “summer hole.” I’m not kidding.
The bottom line is that commenting on WELT is not worth the time. Even the most innocuous posts don’t get through because of the random selection of comments that are chosen for publication.