The Politics of Shitstorms: Is the Pirate Party Its Own Worst Enemy?

Part 2: Updating the System

Photo Gallery: Pirates Ahoy! Photos
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No other movement has applied the technical possibilities of the Internet to politics as quickly and thoroughly. The decision to hold new elections in North Rhine-Westphalia had hardly been reached before the Pirates, using Twitter and Mumble (a platform for voice conferences), began preparing for the next campaign.

Other parties would hire an advertising agency, set up a campaign headquarters and give their general secretary the final say on logos. The Pirates, on the other hand, develop their campaigns on the Internet in a collaborative way, as if they were jointly writing an article on Wikipedia.

That was also the way the new campaign posters came about. Supporters submitted their proposed layouts on a website called Piratenwiki, which is based on a collaborative "wiki" similar to Wikipedia. Meanwhile, a campaign for the best slogans developed on Twitter. Then votes were held using virtual ballots. The winner was a slogan that describes North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) as a software problem. "An update is available for this system," it reads, deliberately mimicking a computer message.

Many established politicians from the right to the left are pretty much at a loss when confronted by such campaigns. The problem begins with the fact that most of them don't even dare to enter the world of the Pirates.

A Conservative Politician Takes to Twitter

Peter Altmaier is one of the few who have ventured into the digital discussion spaces. Altmaier, the leader of the CDU/CSU group in the German parliament, the Bundestag, has had a Twitter account for the last few months. He now has over 9,000 followers, which isn't bad for a conservative politician.

"Only if we become involved on the web can we successfully defend our positions there," says Altmaier. One reason the Pirates are so powerful on the Internet, he adds, is that no one is challenging their dominance of the debate. When it comes to copyright issues, says Altmaier, hardly anyone is arguing for the positions of the established parties.

Even Altmaier is of two minds. On the one hand, he enjoys his status as a web pioneer for the conservatives. On the other hand, he isn't quite confident enough to use Twitter to defend all of the CDU's positions. For instance, he hasn't used Twitter to argue in favor of data retention, knowing full well how mercilessly the public can respond to positions they don't agree with.

Other web-savvy politicians are approaching the Pirate power with a mixture of caution and respect. Take, for example, Dorothee Bär, the 33-year-old deputy general secretary of the CSU, the CDU's Bavarian sister party. Not only is she opposed to data retention, but she also thinks it's a good idea that ACTA is now on hold. But with these views she's also more or less alone in her party.

Keelhauled by the Pirates

The SPD has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to web policy. For a time, there was an initiative called "Pirates in the SPD," headed by Björn Böhning, the former head of the party's youth organization. An online advisory board of about 20 people was formed, and it included prominent web activists like the well-known German blogger Sascha Lobo. But this didn't fit well with the party's pragmatic approach to politics. The advisory council disbanded when the SPD, as part of the former "grand coalition" government with the CDU and CSU, agreed to a controversial law which would have allowed the state to block access to websites featuring child pornography. Since then, younger SPD members have been trying to attract attention with a group called the "Web Policy Task Force."

The SPD example is indicative of a general trend. Young Internet specialists in the established parties are often ideologically closer to the Pirates than to their fellow party members, who often destroy attempts at rapprochement with the web community with a single, poorly informed statement.

But it is the Greens, as a party that used to have broad appeal for young people, that is particularly displeased by the fact that others are seeking to take their place. The new Pirate Party doesn't "have a single issue" it could call its own, complains Green Party floor leader Jürgen Trittin, 57.

In upcoming election campaigns, the veterans of past protests intend to focus on what they portray as the arbitrariness of their young rivals. "When we look at the Pirates, we can see what happens when a weakness in terms of personnel is combined with a lack of content," says senior Green Party politician Volker Beck. "Debates on policies seem to drown in their own Liquid Feedback."

'Bye Bye FDP'

On the other side of the spectrum, the liberal FDP is getting nervous. They are fighting for their survival in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein, and they now view the competition with great concern. Party strategists fear that the Pirates are undermining the FDP in the area of civil liberties and could siphon off younger voters.

"The field of Internet policy still isn't as important within the party as we would like it to be," says Lasse Becker, the head of the FDP's youth organization. "Given our emphasis on civil liberties, we have to develop a stronger stance on web policy. A Facebook profile alone isn't enough."

A few years ago, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the FDP, could have become the heroine of this Internet freedom movement. As a member of the opposition, she and others had filed a suit against the data retention legislation.

But now she is German justice minister. Last week, the European Commission gave the German government a final, four-week deadline to agree on a new data retention law, in order to implement the EU's directive on the issue, otherwise it could face legal action. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is in a no-win situation. The legislation won't happen without compromises with the conservatives, and even her own watered-down proposal earned her much criticism among the web community. "Bye bye FDP," Pirate supporters tweeted sarcastically.

A Tendency Toward Self-Destruction

Dishing out criticism, attacking and mocking their adversaries -- the approach that the Pirates use so effectively in dealing with the established parties has also been directed at some of their own people for some time. It can happen quickly, as Michele Marsching, the chairman of the state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, experienced last week.

He had given an interview with his mobile phone while walking his dog in the woods. A German online news website ran a story on its front page, summarizing the interview with the headline: "Pirate Party Supports Higher Salaries in NRW State Parliament." It only took an hour before the term "Salarygate" surfaced on Twitter.

Marsching was spreading half-baked ideas, one person wrote. Others were less reserved and berated him as a "money-grubbing asshole." The young politician quickly tried to contain the damage with a blog entry about "shitstorms, half-quotes and other human weaknesses."

The tendency toward self-destruction and the lack of a digital discussion culture could still turn into a bigger problem within the party.

Swapping Twitter for a Book

Matthias Schrade is a member of the national executive committee. As a financial analyst, he is one of the few Pirates who wears a suit and tie. There are people griping on Twitter every few minutes, he says, and sometimes the disparaging remarks can go on for days. In a furious blog entry, he addressed the "aggressive behavior" of his fellow party members, adding that such behavior would probably prompt most people to consider abandoning the party.

But instead of throwing in the towel, Schrade opted for a partial withdrawal -- from Mumble, mailing lists and other digital channels. Instead of checking Twitter, he frequently spends his evenings reading books instead.

He has also started communicating with other Pirates in a very old-fashioned and, most of all, non-transparent way: He reaches for the phone.

REPORTED BY SVEN BECKER, RALF BESTE, FRANK HORNIG, RENÉ PFISTER, MARCEL ROSENBACH AND MERLIND THEILE

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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