Lockdowns fueled digital democracy — and polarization — in Germany
“Online petitions as an indicator of current polarization tendencies”
By Dr. Armin Mertens and Dr. Ruth Maria Schüler, courtesy of IW Koeln
The COVID-19 measures of the federal and state governments have massively affected public life in Germany. The ban on contact has temporarily restricted the freedom to pursue a profession, the freedom of trade, compulsory education and religious freedom.
At the same time, the restriction of freedom of assembly reduced the opportunities for political participation to the digital realm. Against the background of these developments, Nida-Rümelin (2020) warns that the COVID-19 pandemic could prove to be an accelerator of the crisis in Western democracies. The extent to which digitisation strengthens or weakens democracy through additional forms of participation was already heavily debated before COVID-19. While Manow (2020), for example, sees digitisation as an opportunity for democracy, Pariser (2011) as well as Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) describe it as a threat to democracy.
An analysis of online petitions in the period before and during the COVID-19 measures in Germany shows that digital participation is used very strongly during the crisis. In March and April 2020 and therefore during the period of the most drastic decisions on COVID-19 virus containment, 3.3 million signatures were collected on petitions referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and related measures. Whether this is due solely to the issue of COVID-19 or to the contact restriction adopted on 22 March, which severely restricts other forms of political participation in the short term, cannot be clearly distinguished based on the data available. The analysis of the petitions’ content suggests that the two aspects are interrelated. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that in the current crisis, digital forms of participation offer an opportunity for German democracy to prove resilient.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people use petitions to express how the crisis affects their economic situation. This is reflected in over 1.35 million signatures for petitions addressing the economic dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, a large number of petitions has been submitted in response to decisions in education. However, these petitions are less frequently signed. The petitions, therefore, can be understood as a hint on the public opinion during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
For this study, almost 1,800 petitions of the commercial participation platform change.org are analysed. These petitions were put online from November 1, 2019 to June 2, 2020. We distinguish between decisions supporting and opposing the COVID-19 lockdown. This distinction shows that the announcement of school and daycare closures in the 12th calendar week is followed by a wave of calls for further measures to contain the pandemic. Shortly before the lockdown is loosened on 15 April 2020, the mood is tilting and a majority of petitioners are in favour of relaxing the lockdown. The call for more openness is increasing once again after the decisions of 15 April, only to slowly fade away with the further loosening of the lockdown.
Download the full report here (in German).
Dr. Armin Mertens is a data scientist with IW Koeln. Dr. Ruth Maria Schüler is an economist for education and political participation with IW Koeln.