17th June 2021
By Christian Schwieter
The launch of “klima.neutral” – a climate communications project by German public broadcaster WDR – on Instagram in February 2021 led to fierce debate on social media. Critics accused WDR of funding propaganda for the Green Party ahead of the German Federal elections in September 2021; others accused the project’s hosts of ‘hypocrisy’. Some critics even tried to use anti-lockdown Facebook groups to rally against “klima.neutral”, continuing a worrying trend that marries COVID-19 grievance with anti-climate mobilisation.
The social media debate around “klima.neutral” serves as a useful case study to illustrate how climate communication efforts by public broadcasters are received – especially in the lead up to an election.
On 17 February 2021, WDR (a regional public broadcaster in Germany) announced the launch of a new Instagram-based climate communications project called “klima.neutral” (“climate.neutral”) on Twitter. The “klima.neutral” project was designed to inform and educate (primarily) young people about the climate crisis through producing content in an accessible format.
WDR’s tweet did not gain much attention on social media. However, when ARD (a national public broadcaster in Germany) tweeted about “klima.neutral” on 20 February, it received far greater engagement online – particularly after prominent politicians affiliated with the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU/CSU) parties publicly criticised the new Instagram channel.
The prevalence of online debate across Twitter and Facebook/Instagram was approximately equal in volume, however, the tone of debate varied significantly across different social media platforms. While the majority of posts on Twitter (74%) were positive, the majority of posts on Facebook and Instagram were negative (73%).
The two most prominent types of criticism across all platforms argued that:
➜“klima.neutral” constitutes illegitimate ‘election aid’ for the Green party by a public broadcaster, variously referred to as ‘climate propaganda’.
➜The most prominent host of the programme, Frederik Fleig, is a ‘climate hypocrite’ because he boasts about having travelled to 55 countries. The four hosts of the project are frequently referred to as the ‘JetsetQuartett’, accompanied by hashtags like #KlimaElite (climate elite) and #WokeFliegen (woke flying).
There were also attempts by those opposing “klima.neutral” to mobilise AfD supporters and anti-lockdown audiences on Facebook against it. Analysts observed anti-“klima.neutral” content being posted to unrelated anti-lockdown or pro-Afd public Facebook groups in what seems to have been an attempt to generate outrage about the project.
Across all platforms, some of the most popular posts (with ‘popularity’ measured by the number of shares on Facebook or retweets on Twitter) targeted specific figures – most notably Frederik Fleig, who was targeted by individuals affiliated with the CDU and AfD; and Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of the FDP, who had criticised the project as election support for the Green Party. Other popular posts generally fell at opposite ends of a spectrum, either targeting public broadcasters for endorsing “klima.neutral” or political parties for criticising “klima.neutral”.
Most shared posts surrounding “klima.neutral”:
|User||Number of Followers||Number of Shares or Retweets||Individual or Entity Targeted|
|Florian Hahn (Deputy Secretary General CSU, Member of the Bundestag)||6,905||1,002||ARD|
|Jan S (self-described CDU youth member)||5,551||871||Frederik Fleig (“klima.neutral” host)|
|ARD Presse (official account of the public broadcaster)||201.9k||498||None|
|Georg Restle (high profile ARD journalist)||86.6k||367||CDU & FDP (political parties with members which have criticised the “klima.neutral”)|
|Beatrix von Storch (Deputy Leader of AfD)||107k||282||Frederik Fleig (“klima.neutral” host)|
|Der Graslutscher (popular blogger advocating for veganism)||56k||176||Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (high profile FDP politician)|
Ultimately, the social media debate around “klima.neutral” serves as a small but useful case study to illustrate how climate communication efforts by public broadcasters are received and used in broader political debates. It highlights the online tactics used to undermine such efforts, ranging from well-rehearsed accusations of political bias from the right-wing, to ad hominem attacks against individuals.
Christian Schwieter is an Analyst at ISD Germany, working across projects in the research and policy division. Christian focuses on the quantitative analysis of online political communication, with an emphasis on the effect of online regulation on far-right actors.