When new laws matter for communication science
24 July 2017 - By Damian Trilling, assistant professor Political Communication & Journalism: "There are many differences between countries that shape how we communicate."
On 30 June, the German Bundestag passed a new law, introducing the #ehefueralle. Marriage for everyone; i.e. the right for homosexual couples to marry instead of only having a 'registered partnership. This decision - rightfully - received a lot of media coverage, both nationally and internationally. But in the same meeting, the Bundestag also passed to other laws that are relevant for communication science.
When doing research, we have to select one or more countries to conduct our studies in. Often, it's the country where we are living, or we choose a country for pragmatic reasons - for instance, because we speak the language. We usually write some sentences about country characteristics, refer to the book ‘Comparing Media Systems’ by Hallin and Mancini, or point to differences between two-party and multi-party systems.
But there are many more differences between countries that shape how we communicate. And the two German laws are a good illustration of that.
Have you ever travelled to Germany and wondered why there are so few wifi-hotspots? Well, until last week, the Germans had a rule named ‘Störerhaftung’, which in essence means that if you do something criminal online, the person who gave you access to the internet can be held responsible for that. It's not hard to imagine that such a law influences where and how internet access is available. For instance, while cultural factors might play an even bigger role, such accessibility issues might contribute to the stark difference between social media users in advanced economies: In Germany, only 37% use social media, compared to 70% in the Netherlands.
Many of us study the comments and posts people leave on social media. One of the topics that are frequently studied, is incivility. For instance, together with Linda Bos, Lara Janse van Rensburg and Maarten de Groot, I once studied incivility of users reactions to articles on Nu.nl. One problem that we encountered was that by definition we cannot study content that has been removed (unless you are fast enough...): While we are interested in extreme content that people may post, we get a somewhat biased picture, as the most extreme content is probably removed by editorial staff. It is likely that this will happen much more in Germany in the future, as the Bundestag passed another - very controversial - law, the ‘Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz’: it basically obliges platforms to remove content that is potentially unlawful immediately.
These two examples illustrate that, when choosing countries for our research - be it for a thesis or something else - we need to look beyond superficial country characteristics and must be very careful when applying findings from one country to another one: at least in terms of laws and regulations, the world is no global village yet.
Dr Damian Trilling (33) is assistant professor Political Communication & Journalism. He completed a ‘Magister’ degree in Communion Science with minors in Dutch studies and German linguistics at the University of Münster in 2009. He obtained his PhD in Communication Science at the UvA in 2013.