Could Twitter Influence the German Election?

Twitter moves some Germans to call for a ban on exit polls, amid fears of leaks.

June 30, 2009 — -- Ever since the German presidential election result was posted on Twitter before being announced officially there has been growing concern that the September election could be influenced by leaked exit polls. Politicians and opinion pollsters are demanding pledges of secrecy and there are even calls to ban exit polls altogether.

It was just after five o'clock in the evening when Chancellor Angela Merkel gathered the members of the executive committee of her conservative Christian Democrats in Berlin. The polling stations were still open, but the head of the party already knew that she had missed her election target. "We can safely assume that there will be no black-yellow majority," she said, referring to her preferred coalition of the CDU with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). At the same time she gave the troops their orders for the hours to come. "We have the mandate to form the government."

To date, federal elections have always proceeded the way they did on Sept. 18, 2005. When, at around 4 p.m., senior politicians gather in their party headquarters, the opinion poll institutes present the results of their exit polls. Television viewers only get to hear the results of these polls, which generally correspond, within a few percentage points, to the actual outcome, at 6 p.m, after the polling stations have closed.

But what has become a new reality of the election ritual is threatening to endanger the voting process. Parties and fractions doubt that, in the Internet age, exit poll results can be held secret for long enough. Germany's federal election supervisor Roderich Egeler is warning of the worse possible scenario: "It would be disastrous if the results of the exit polls were to be made public before the polls close."

And the focus of all these concerns is the online text-messaging service Twitter. The almost ubiquitous social networking site has made it possible to distribute confidential information via mobile phone over the Internet in a matter of seconds. Now parliamentarians are worried that the federal election on Sept. 27 could be sullied by confidential information. SPD domestic policy spokesman Dieter Wiefelspütz warns that networks could form to use the results of the exit polls "to influence voters at the last minute," adding: "If the results of the exit polls are twittered, we're lost."

This could have serious consequences. Should the results of the surveys be known in advance, the election result could be declared constitutionally invalid. Citizens or parties could refute the results, possibly necessitating a re-vote.

According to the federal electoral law, the results of exit polls can not be published prior to the "completion of the voting period." Infringements can be penalized with a €50,000 ($70,000) fine. But there's ample reason to doubt that Twitter informants would be put off by this threat, especially after what occured during the recent election of the German president.

Appeals for Discretion

Julia Klöckner, a member of parliament for Merkel's CDU and secretary of the Federal Assembly's election commission, was one of those who announced on the Internet that Horst Köhler had won the election before the results were made official. "People, you can watch football in peace. The election worked," Klöckner wrote on Twitter. She was reprimanded for her behavior, as was SPD floor leader Ulrich Kelber, who also posted a message before the official results were out.

Many politicians and opinion pollsters are now appealing for discretion amongst the 50 to 100 insiders to avoid similar leaks during the forthcoming federal elections in September. FDP floor leader Jörg van Essen has asked his colleagues in the parliament to "keep the election secret at all costs." No one, he warned, should be allowed "to influence the election results."

The heads of the biggest opinion poll institutes who put together voter surveys for the pubic broadcasters ARD and ZDF are also hoping to make sure their people don't break ranks. Employees are "sworn to the strictest secrecy," says Richard Hilmer, CEO of Infratest dimap. "Everything will be done to prevent the leaking of exit polls," he says.

However, a number of politicians are convinced that tougher preventive measures are required. Dorothee Bär, deputy secretary general of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, believes it would make sense to have all those who have access to the information "pledge a code of secrecy." SPD expert Wiefelspütz would go even further. He thinks a "ban on exit polls should be considered," although he admits it would "hardly be possible to make any such changes in this legislative period."

Even federal election supervisor Egeler is alarmed. He wants to hold talks with the polling institutes in the coming weeks about necessary security measures. If there is no other way of ensuring confidentiality then the "legislators could think about whether the exit polls should be allowed to continue."

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