German Politics Discovers YouTube
A blue-haired 20-something music-mashup influencer has sent Angela Merkel’s party into a tailspin.
A week before the recent European elections, a blue-haired young man uploaded a video making good on its title—“The Destruction of the CDU”—by seeking to rhetorically dismantle Germany’s ruling party of the past 14 years. Rezo, the 26 year-old video producer’s online alias, has built a substantial following as a musician and entertainer—his primary YouTube channel has more than 1.6 million followers—who tune in primarily for the covers and mashups of pop songs that he performs. You’d be forgiven for assuming this latest, intensely political, video was an expression of the arrogance of youth. Yet the video, combined with disappointing results in the subsequent elections, has indeed sent the Christian Democratic Union, Germany‘s most powerful political party, into a tailspin, causing many in Germany to call the future of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s once seemingly invincible party into doubt.
That a single video could cause so much consternation in the German political establishment says more about the political landscape than about the video itself. The centrist parties that have long dominated German politics have been bleeding votes, especially among younger voters. The CDU has been attempting to stop the hemorrhaging by moving further and further to the right, but the party continues to lose ground. Changes to the party’s media strategy, meanwhile, have been minimal. Rezo’s video reveals their inept communication to be at least as important as their policy positions.
The video attacks the party on three main points. First, Rezo claims that the centrist party‘s policies have contributed substantially to Germany‘s growing income inequality and diminishing social mobility. He also accuses both the CDU and the traditionally more left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) of complicity in American war crimes—he feels strongly that both parties should have resisted American efforts to use Ramstein Air Base as a relay point for drone warfare in the Middle East. The heart of the video, however, is the claim that corrupt, reactionary, and incompetent politics have prevented Germany from effectively contributing to the fight against global warming.
All three complaints are old hat, but Rezo‘s relaxed yet impassioned delivery, along with his command of an English-inflected slang popular among German youth, propelled the video to viral status. Within four days, it had more than 3 million views. As of this writing, it has been seen nearly 14.5 million times. The CDU struggled to respond. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, they recorded a video to respond, but then decided against releasing it and decided to post an extended rebuttal in the form of a PDF instead. Party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer worsened matters significantly when she quipped that she was surprised Rezo hadn‘t held the party responsible for the “seven plagues in ancient Egypt.” The attempt to deflate the anger the video had provoked with humor backfired, especially because Kramp-Karrenbauer—who is Catholic—confused the seven plagues of biblical end times with the 10 plagues inflicted on Egypt.
Rezo wasn‘t done yet. Two days before the election he released a video featuring some 90 other influencers on YouTube. Together, they make a clear statement: Germany’s governing coalition has led the country down a path to climate catastrophe. It‘s up to voters to show them the urgency of the situation. So don’t vote for the CDU. The video then takes a dark turn. “Of course, dear politicians,” begins a YouTuber named Tim Jacken, “you can always try to discredit us.” The video cuts, and another YouTuber takes over. “You can say we don‘t have any idea what we’re talking about, that we’re fakes,”—the video cuts again—“that we’ve been instrumentalized, that we’ve been bought, and so forth.” Another cut, and another influencer speaks: “You’ve already used all of these disrespectful tactics against us, your own citizens, this year.” Then there’s one more cut, and Rezo brings the video to an end by saying, “and we speak for many of our fellow citizens when we say that these tactics haven’t made you many friends.”
When the CDU lost 7 percentage points in the European elections, commentators were quick to point to the Rezo effect, and though the YouTuber himself denied that he had a substantial impact on the elections, the CDU’s leadership was eager to point the finger in his direction. On the Monday following the election, Kramp-Karrenbauer suggested on Twitter that there should be rules to govern the speech of powerful Internet figures during elections: “It’s absurd to accuse me of wanting to regulate speech,” she wrote. “Freedom of speech is a treasured value in democratic societies. What we have to talk about, however, are rules that apply during elections.” Furthermore, she argued that the videos were propaganda, and that it would be unthinkable for serious papers to tell readers how to vote.
The statement was roundly derided. On the right, she was accused of incompetence: The editor of Cicero, a conservative political magazine, suggested that the CDU leadership should have simply pointed suggestively to Rezo’s affiliation with the powerful Ströer advertising group. Centrists largely joined leftists in claiming that the statement was both reactionary and incompetent.
Johannes Weberling, a prominent media attorney and honorary professor of media law at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt on the Oder, described Kramp-Karrenbauer’s response as “dumb,” and insisted that the CDU should have responded in kind—by presenting their own arguments, preferably in video form. He did, however, agree that a conversation about the role of online personalities in political life was overdue. Existing law in Germany, he explained, holds journalists to a standard of truthfulness to which Internet personalities are not beholden. Though it would be legal for newspapers to endorse candidates in Germany, and was in fact common “30 or 40 years ago,” opinions in newspapers must be clearly marked as such—a possible strategy for combating the spread of far-right propaganda in Germany. Such an approach, Weberling said, might also have made Rezo liable for a few errors in a research project that has been widely held to be largely accurate, if one-sided.
But it’s hard to imagine that either a more rigorous distinction between journalism and opinion or a more active social media presence from the established parties could do much to calm a media landscape in turmoil. “Journalists and parties have a similar problem,” said Oliver Schröm, one of Germany’s leading investigative journalists, when I asked him about the success of Rezo’s video. Schröm had had difficulty gaining traction for important stories online, so when Correctiv, the nonprofit devoted to investigative journalism that Schröm leads, published a story detailing massive tax fraud on Europe’s borders, they collaborated with the popular comedian Jan Böhmermann and enjoyed widespread success on social media. “It’s not as though young people are apolitical, but we haven’t figured out how to reach them,” Schröm said, pointing to Fridays for Future, the series of school strikes around the world for action on climate change, as an example of youth engagement.
That failure has been expensive for Germany’s most powerful parties. Andrea Nahles, head of the center-left SPD, stepped down last weekend after that party’s poor performance in the recent elections, and a new opinion poll released on Sunday showed that the Greens are, for the first time, the most popular party in Germany. Whether they will have any more success in continuing to engage the public is an open question. According to research done by BuzzFeed Germany, 49 of the 100 most popular posts about the European election on German-speaking Facebook were from the far-right Alternative for Germany, while Austria’s right-wing populist party, the Freedom Party, contributed another 13 to the total. The Greens and the CDU were each only able to place one post in the top 100.
Rezo, for his part, has routinely rebuffed the efforts of the CDU to organize a debate—for one thing, he claims that a stutter makes him a poor choice for a public figure. But he’s also said that he doesn’t feel that there’s much point in opening a discussion until the parties acknowledge the urgency of climate change. For some, the stance makes him a principled leader. Der Spiegel, to whom he granted an exclusive interview, have identified him and 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as the leaders of a new generation of activists. They’re calling them the ‘19ers, a contemporary answer to the generation of 1968 which has long been the epitome of political engagement. Now as then, establishment media and politicians are struggling to figure out how to address a disillusioned populace. The CDU’s anger at Rezo, and incapacity to engage with him on his own terms, is especially disturbing because the other voices that have succeeded in animating discussion online belong not to the establishment parties, but to far-right demagogues. Perhaps rather than criticizing Rezo or inviting him to a debate, the CDU should have asked him for a lesson.