Opinion: The myth of a divided German society – DW (English)

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Heated debates on social media distort reality, writes DW’s Marcel Fürstenau. He argues that German society is not as polarized as some might imagine.

Even though protests against anti-COVID measures draw thousands, it is still a minority that is represented
Mandatory vaccination — these words could well be two of the most controversial of 2021. But so contentious that they could divide German society?
At the moment, it certainly feels that way. The fact that vaccination against COVID-19 could well become compulsory next year in Germany has prompted much heated debate.
But before we start making things worse by banging on about polarization in a knee-jerk reaction, it is worthwhile to pause for a bit and listen.
Listening, for example, to what the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said about the day that he was elected about the vaccination causing the much-cited rift in society. “I don’t think much of that view of things,” he said, pointing out that most citizens have been vaccinated.
And he is right. As of December 10, almost 70% have received the full dose of the vaccine. “And many more think that this is right or at least not wrong in principle,” Scholz added. That is also true.
But he really hit the mark with this sentence: “We must not assume that the whole of society is split just because a vocal minority is being extremely radical in its behavior.” Well said, Mr. Chancellor! If anybody doubts his words, they should take a closer look at studies on polarization and populism. There are many of these, and their findings are clear: Social cohesion is much greater than many people would assume.
DW’s Marcel Fürstenau
In a study conducted for Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Jochen Roose, who researches elections and society, wrote: “At the beginning of 2019, two-thirds of the population believed that there was little or no cohesion in society. This perception of polarization has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Agreement with the statement ‘In our society, people are irreconcilably opposed to each other’ decreased from 41% before the pandemic to 31% in the pandemic.”
It should be noted that this is how people in Germany themselves assess the situation.
The Bertelsmann Populism Barometer also contains reassuring statements: “Currently, only about two in 10 eligible voters in Germany (20.9%) remain populist in their views. That’s 11.8 percentage points, or a little more than a third, less than in November 2018 (32.8%).”
This also contradicts the widespread perception of an increasingly divided society.
Why then is there so much talk of division, polarization and conspiracy theories? One explanation is that we live in a so-called media democracy. What is positive about the digital age is that anyone can, in theory, express themselves about anything at any time, thanks to social media. But the negative side of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like is their unbridled buzz potential. And that’s where age-old reflexes kick in: The louder and more agitated someone appears, the more attention they attract.
According to a study by public broadcasters, only a minority of people use social media in Germany. In 2020, 26% were active on Facebook, 20% on Instagram and only 5% on Twitter. However, there are people in certain sectors who are particularly active: politicians, activists of all stripes and journalists.
All of them want — and have — to put their messages out in front of the public, and it is unthinkable to do so today without social media platforms since those who disregard these platforms are no longer heard or seen. Tweets and other posts on social media have become the fastest way of broadcasting an opinion without being asked for one. Such opinion-givers would mostly remain among themselves if not for the other people and channels that spread their views. As it is, however, they can sometimes reach millions through more traditional media platforms, especially TV talk shows.
In the never-ending competition for audiences, ratings and clicks, sensational headlines and exaggeration are part of the trade. A debate about the pros and cons of mandatory vaccination can thus quickly give the impression of a divided society.
But here, too, Olaf Scholz had something sensible to say: “Of course, this can be debated fiercely. And that is not a problem at all. That’s what democracy is about.”
To conclude, let us look at an award-winning essay entitled “Anger and Worldview” by Paula Köhler of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. The author argues that Germany is not so much experiencing a polarization of society as a whole but a debate that it is increasingly personalized.
“A small part of the population (political elites and opinion-makers) [is] bombarded with hatred and slander by an equally unrepresentative small part of the population (angry online trolls),” she writes. And this, in turn, she says, impacts the broader debate culture.
Unfortunately, she is right there.
This article has been translated from German.
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