The co-chairman of Germany’s Green party says he is quitting Twitter and Facebook after a cyberattack exposed his personal communications and because he committed several gaffes via tweet.
“Twitter rubs off on me,” Robert Habeck writes, announcing his departure from both platforms. “There is no medium with so much hate, malice, and incitement.”
Habeck was one of the primary victims of a sweeping data breach that saw private chats from his family published online. Prominent members of nearly every German political party had their cellphone numbers, credit card data and private communications exposed, as NPR’s Bill Chappell has reported. Only the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was spared. The stolen information was posted to Twitter in the days before Christmas.
Germany’s investigative police force announced Tuesday that it has arrested a 20-year-old man who confessed to committing the hack, Deutsche Welle reports. Authorities including Interior Minister Horst Seehofer have faced questions over why they took weeks to stop the hack or apprehend a suspect.
In addition to the hack, Habeck endured a backlash to a campaign video he posted to Twitter.
“We’re trying to do everything so that Thuringia becomes an open, free, liberal, democratic and ecological state,” Habeck says in the video, according to the DPA news agency.
Habeck was quick to reject accusations that his comment implied that Thuringia, a state in the former east Germany, is not democratic already. It was Habeck’s second misstep; in October, after Bavarian elections, he tweeted, “finally, there is democracy again in Bavaria,” Deutsche Welle reports.
In his statement this week, Habeck writes: “Apparently, Twitter triggers something in me: to be more aggressive, louder, more polemical…in a swiftness that makes it hard to leave room for reflection.”
The move to quit Facebook and Twitter has raised eyebrows. Commentator Dirk von Gehlen writes in Süddeutsche Zeitung, “One of the most prominent Greens publicly admits that he can meet the challenges of digitization with retreat.”
A cartoonist for German media mocked Habeck, whose party campaigns for environmentally sound policy. “Problem solved: I’m now on eco-Twitter,” Habeck says in the cartoon, as he releases a carrier pigeon.
In the U.S., quitting Twitter and Facebook would pose a serious challenge for politicians, according to Republican strategist Alice Stewart.
“For Republican candidates in America, social media is a vital tool in bypassing the mainstream media filter and communicating directly with your constituents,” Stewart tells NPR via email. “I cannot imagine a politician in America attempting to compete with their challengers without social media.”
Republicans and Democrats alike rely on the platforms. Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., recently inspired hundreds of supporters to post pictures of themselves wearing traditional Palestinian dress with the hashtag #TweetYourThobe. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has more than 3.6 million Twitter followers.
German politicians have harnessed American social-media savvy. NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports that Austin, Texas-based Harris Media, which helped create Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s online presence and briefly worked with the Trump campaign, was critical in crafting polarizing social media messaging for the AfD.
Habeck leaves Facebook and Twitter as his party enjoys a revival in Germany, polling second nationally. Recent elections in the states of Bavaria and Hesse showed a surge of support for the Greens amid fatigue with the ruling Christian Democratic Union and Social Democrats, writes reporter Simon Schütz.
Twitter lost 9 million users worldwide in the third quarter of 2018, according to the latest company earnings report.
Facebook grew during the same period in every market except Europe, where it lost a million monthly active users. But it has faced a backlash since a whistle-blower revealed in March 2018 that some 87 million people had their data improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica. It was the beginning of a months-long scandal that revealed the network was slow to respond when Russian operatives used it to spread misinformation to influence U.S. elections.
Habeck has not deleted his account on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. His latest post is a video of floodwaters in Glücksburg, in northern Germany. Users have not been quick to forgive his blunder about the German state of Thuringia. One comments, “Great move on Twitter! Again, for the record: Thuringia is located in the Federal Republic of Germany, not in North Korea.”