GERMANS STILL WORRIED ABOUT WHO’S PEEKING
Memories not just of the Stasi mute their enthusiasm for living their lives online
On the maps charting how Silicon Valley’s tendrils of power have spread around the planet, one recalcitrant country stands out like Asterix’s village in the landscape of Roman Gaul.
Germany is the developed world’s last redoubt of resistance to social media. It is among a precious handful of rich countries whose people are more likely to buy a newspaper than follow current affairs on Twitter or Facebook. Scarcely two out of five Germans have a social network account, compared with two out of three people in Australia, Britain and the US. It is not that they don’t like the internet: more than 90 per cent of them are online, and they spend just as much time watching videos of skateboarding pugs or browsing for remaindered shoes as their European neighbours. It is more that they are specifically reluctant to hawk out their lives for public consumption. My German friends’ Facebook accounts are like a fleet of digital Mary Celestes. There might be a profile picture taken on a holiday in Sri Lanka six years ago and the odd status update wishing the world a happy new year, but that is more or less that.
The country’s broader social networking culture is unusually stunted. A few dozen “influencers” — including Adrienne Koleszar, a blonde, gym-honed 34-year-old from Dresden who is feted by the tabloids as “Germany’s most gorgeous policewoman” — are fortunate enough to scrape a living together from their YouTube or Instagram accounts, but they are very much in the minority.
The German Twittersphere is a niche habitat dominated by strange benthic fauna such as political geeks, journalists, and rightwing obsessives.
Peter Mannion, a fictional Tory MP in the British television political satire The Thick of It, has three times as many followers as the real-life German Interior Minister. Angela Merkel does not even have a presence. “If you look at how frequently Europeans use social networks, out of all 28 EU member states, the Germans are truly bottom of the pile,” says Sa- bine Trepte, media psychology professor at Stuttgart’s Hohenheim University. “Only a third of Germans look at Facebook on a daily basis,” she notes, compared to almost twice as many internet users elsewhere.
I used to have a small menagerie of pet theories on this subject. One: Germans pride themselves on their lack of small talk, which rules out pretty much 85 per cent of social media interac- tions. Two: big tech has built a business model the size of the Norwegian economy on Andy Warhol’s insight that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Most people seem perfectly content to sacrifice their privacy in order to get a bit of attention. But perhaps the Germans are simply not that bothered. Three: maybe they just don’t care for being bossed around by evangelical Americans with big ideas.
Over dinner a couple of months ago, though, a German friend politely dismissed all this fanciful speculation. “Erm, I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s actually because of the Stasi.”
It was less than three decades ago that half the country was in the grip of a totalitarian surveillance state that maintained an informant for every seven ordinary people. The roots of Germany’s itchy anxiety about being watched run deeper than that, though. Before the Stasi, there was the Gestapo. And even before the Gestapo, the Prussians riddled Berlin with a formidable network of secret police in the early 19th century.
“Perhaps it is really down to our past,” Trepte says. “The Ger- man fear of surveillance is deeply anchored in German history and in many families’ sense of identity. You have to bear in mind that our mothers and fathers can still recall how they or other families were snooped on and persecuted. It was not all that long ago. First came the Nazis, then the Stasi. At the very least, the Germans are cautious and critical.”
These ancient psychological scars have far-reaching consequences in the 21st century. Germany’s privacy laws are among the strictest in the world.
With Berlin’s blessing, the EU’s competition commissioner has become the only heavyweight regulator to take on Silicon Valley in earnest, imposing fines running to hundreds of millions of euros on previously untouchable companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple.
A year ago, Germany’s ingrained wariness of social media might have seemed fusty and paranoid. But now, as the world wakes up to the many ways in which big tech has abused its power, it is starting to look prescient.
These ancient psychological scars have far-reaching consequences in the 21st century