By Chris Bryant in Berlin
Published: May 27 2009
It is already being dubbed “Twittergate”. The internet communication craze that has swept the world has caused a political furore in Germany, where the country’s parliamentary elders will on Thursday launch a probe into twittering MPs who broke decades of tradition and leaked news of the president’s re-election.
The probe, which has already led one MP to resign from a parliamentary post, underscores the rapid spread of 140 character “tweets”, which are growing in popularity at a faster rate than social networking site Facebook.
Users of Twitter grew from 1.6m to 32m worldwide over the past year, according to Comscore, the web measurement company.
News that Hörst Köhler had been re-elected as German president on Saturday was published on the micro-blogging service almost 15 minutes before the result was officially announced.
Julia Klöckner, of chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, told her Twitter “followers” on that afternoon: “People, you can watch the football in peace. The vote was a success.” She later apologised for the “somewhat premature timing” of a message.
Ulrich Kelber, of the SPD, was even more specific, prematurely uploading the result of the vote-count to his micro-blog: “The count is confirmed: 613 votes. Köhler is elected.”
The Social Democrats, whose candidate for the presidency failed, were initially incensed by the Twitter leaks. Yet both SPD and CDU have since played down the matter.
Although the winner came as no surprise, the breach of protocol has upset seasoned members of parliament. Parliamentary elders, the ultimate guardians of proper legislative conduct, are due to meet over Twittergate today.
Critics insist that only the Bundestag president has the constitutional right to declare a new head of state. He customarily uses more than the 140 characters permitted in a tweet. “I have absolutely no sympathy for things like this, because it will end up undermining the dignity of parliament,” said Peter Ramsauer, head of the CSU parliamentary party.
Susanne Kastner, vice-president of the house and a Social Democrat, deplored the incident. “But unfortunately, you cannot ban twitting in parliament,” she said. Others noted that boredom might have acted as a mitigating factor for the guilty twitters – because of three recounts, the result of the vote was made public almost an hour after the official schedule.
Twitter, and blogging in general, remain relatively niche pastimes in Germany but politicians are no strangers to technology. In addition to publishing a weekly webcast, the chancellor keeps tabs on government members and aides via text message, which she can often be seen writing from her seat in parliament’s plenary hall.
Indeed close advisors insist Ms Merkel is no less addicted to instant electronic than US president Barack Obama is to his BlackBerry device.