As soon as the general election is over, the constantly overwhelmed attention economy needs new fodder. So now a selfie is moving Internet Germany. You can see the Greens chairmen Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck as well as FDP leader Christian Lindner and his general secretary Volker Wissing. The heads of the two parties had surprisingly met on Wednesday night to discuss initial preliminary talks about joint participation in government. Smiling at the camera in casual clothes, they seem to want to exude optimism. All four shared the same photo on Instagram, labeled with exactly the same wording: “In the search for a new government, we are exploring common ground and bridging the gap. And even find some. Exciting times. “
The picture caused great amusement in social networks. Comparisons with family groups on WhatsApp are made where uncles and aunts prove to those who stayed at home with a photo that they have arrived safely. Others discuss proposals for a common band name or discuss who chose the more aesthetic Instagram filter – and whether this reveals political differences. Of course, a video has long been circulating in which all four move their lips synchronously to the hit “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. But is there more to be seen in the photo than an ironic wink?
First of all: Greens and FDP have mastered the keyboard of the Internet. This is probably one of the reasons why they both scored points in the previous election among young people. In terms of imagery and social media affinity, the possible junior partners in a three-party coalition make the “big ones” look pretty old. Four years ago, selfies hardly played a role in the election campaign; today they are ubiquitous. But Scholz and Laschet only have a fraction of the number of Lindner and Baerbock followers on Instagram.
The power of images continues to grow
Politics has always used the suggestive power of staged images – this was true long before social media. One thinks of Willy Brandt’s kneeling in Warsaw. Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand hand in hand in Verdun. Or Gerhard Schröder’s photos of rubber boots during the flood in 2002. To this day, transport ministers can still be photographed at the symbolic groundbreaking ceremony. Defense ministers pose in uniform in front of fighter jets. And the Minister of Health puts on his lab coat when visiting the research center.
But the power of images continues to grow – and becomes more and more uncontrollable. Today anyone can take photos at any moment, edit them and put them on the web in seconds. Politicians and the media are increasingly losing their sovereignty over dissemination and interpretation. The times when you just had to pull yourself together in front of the camera are over. Every nose picking, every clumsy facial expression can cost the political future. The pictures of the smirking Chancellor candidate Armin Laschet in the flood area were probably a decisive factor in the CDU’s severe election defeat.
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But even after elections, the staging can fail. The photos from the balcony of the German Parliamentary Society in Berlin are remembered when the CDU, FDP and Greens negotiated a Jamaica coalition in 2018. Day after day, the negotiators presented themselves behind the stone parapet during their breaks. A smile here, a wave there. The cameras caught every tentative touch, every whisper. One snapshot in particular caused discussion at the time: the trio Alexander Dobrindt, Christian Lindner and Armin Laschet lit cigarillos high above the heads of media representatives. Rash arrogant power gestures of a men’s society?
A clever PR move
Robert Habeck told the “Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung” on Monday that this time they wanted to avoid this form of balcony photos. It was foolish “to stand there with an almost royal gesture before a result could even be found”. So what Habeck, Baerbock, Lindner and Wissing want to show: We have understood. You are cautious, approachable, modest, factual, coordinated and willing to compromise. Selfies as self-assurance. If you can manage to achieve a common image, then you should also work in a government.
By the way, it’s a clever PR move: Instead of talking about political contradictions, the country is now talking about cropping and filters. What was discussed at the green and yellow secret meeting is unknown. For the time being, optics suggests content. The public pressure is derived. And so we are now witnessing the shift from staging for external representation to optimizing self-portrayal in politics. The power over one’s own image is the power over one’s own image.
The strategy does not seem to have worked completely. Most observers in social networks find the recording extremely artificial – and therefore involuntarily funny. Like Armin Laschet’s attempt to correct his faux pas in the flood area by giving a speech in front of a mountain of rubble. And yet, referring to the words of Christian Lindner, with which he broke the coalition talks in 2017, one can state: It is better to stage yourself than to be misrepresented. The main thing is that you don’t forget to govern better at some point.