What is going wrong in the discourse on the Ukraine war as it is being conducted by politicians, scientists and, above all, journalists? What explains the high temperature, where do the comparatively sharp tones in the discussion come from, what is the reason for a doggedness that is otherwise only known from religious wars?
There is some evidence that the discourse is determined by the typical characteristics of digital rhetoric, by a language that, driven by feelings, is not stopped by “little things” that in turn refer to analogue language behavior.
The process that reality goes through from analog to digital can be compared to the transformation of a tree into sawdust: each chip is the same size as the next, there are no voids or cavities. Compared to the tree, the transport hardly takes up any space. It can be done quickly. Digitization reduces, compresses and concentrates language. She cuts off everything that seems superfluous at the moment. This favors the sharpening.
The amount of material is unimaginably large. Distances are irrelevant for transport. On the basis of such properties, a new model for human communication emerged. There are new devices that can process the data and spread it over the internet. There are new forms and formats that have grown out of the possibilities of data manipulation and transmission. Learning new techniques is easy.
But there are not only such easily identifiable effects and objects. There are, which is easily overlooked, momentous side effects that are typical of digital content, which, through the digital possibilities, substantially change the analog routines both in their quantity and in their structures.
Such a side effect, which is caused by the digitally generated, confusing and unmanageable quantity of messages, is the compulsion for the communicator to generate attention. He wants to differentiate his message from the mass of other messages, has to find ways and methods to achieve something like addressee optimization – be it for the relevance of the message or for the sake of the number of clicks, their (verifiable) quantity creates the platform for paid advertising.
But how do you attract attention? How do you become distinctive, stand out from the crowd, how prominent? An instrument that has already been successful in the analogue world is deliberately breaking taboos. You say the unspeakable or the unspeakable – and you get noticed. Experience shows that strong feelings, disgust, but also threats or hatred, a renunciation of even the slightest mince, provoke strong, polarizing reactions, both positive and negative. The world is, as it were, driven to pair. Experience also shows that the contrast as a rhetorical club, as the middle of a message, generates more users than is possible with deliberative, differentiating texts. Opposites make it easier to keep things short and sweet. Means such as breaking taboos or contrasts unfold their full effect best when they do without weighing, differentiating.
The result of their rhetoric demands a high degree of clarity. Differentiating or qualifying considerations obscure the clarity. They make distribution slow, take away the momentum of the message, take the speed out of distribution. Many words arouse the suspicion of meaninglessness. Here, differentiation means something like distraction: sand in the digital gears.
In this way, certain content that endures the digital pace, that endures the heat of the escalation, is privileged. Other content will be discriminated against. There is much to suggest that this digital rhetoric, through its alternative approach, will sooner or later lead to what it previously relentlessly pretended to avoid: the division of entire societies.
The micro-blogging service Twitter is a model for this type of communication, whose punch line, whose spice lies in brevity. Those who tweet say goodbye to the ambiguous. He gets things straight. For reasons of space, he has no way of beating around the bush. The command, the temptation is: keep it short! The key to brevity is clarity and the mother of clarity is unambiguity.
A large part of digital communication, or the communicators, is looking for this clarity, not an unclear edge, but a clear edge. It was no coincidence that Donald Trump successfully disseminated his political essentials with this “model”. In doing so, he achieved that opinions had to be divided because of him, that one had to decide: he or nobody. Elon Musk has also recognized this quality and can even afford to buy it.
Founded on a single basic difference, that of one and zero, digital communication eschews all diversity. It tends towards a clear yes or no. A “I like” or “I don’t like” is enough, black or white, male or female. Something third, fourth, fifth goes against digital thinking. Diversity, the multitude of opinions, the variety of ways of life, the differing attitudes, a life with subordinate clauses – all of this is obviously too complex, too complicated, too long-winded, too cumbersome for the digitally influenced. Anyone who refuses to agree or reject, who even postpones a decision, is denying digital clarity. Digitization promotes the perception of a world in which there are only spaces, but hardly any spaces in between. A world where you can only belong to the winners or the losers. Tertium non datur.
Against the background of a different meaning and evaluation of the digital paradigm, the dispute about the political style and the statements of the Federal Chancellor in connection with the war in Ukraine turns out to be a (covert) dispute about the prevailing ideas and intentions of communication. Scholz communicates what makes him look old for the digital dynamics, mainly according to analog specifications and routines. Most of his critics, on the other hand, apparently think and act digitally. The Federal Chancellor and his advisors were probably of the opinion that it was enough to choose a term with no alternative such as the turning point of the era, which corresponds to digital thinking – there is only a before and an after – as the political heading for the war chapter. It was believed that in this way they were giving sugar to the Manichaean zeitgeist, a spirit, a mood that had changed completely overnight (although apart from a lot of money for the Bundeswehr nothing had changed).
But Olaf Scholz has not expanded his digitally savvy first statement. Apparently, after the proclamation of this turning point in the Chancellery, people believed that they had paid enough attention to the zeitgeist and could use such a buzzword to do politics in a rather old-fashioned way, with the familiar means of analogous rhetoric: weigh, examine, postpone, and oneself , if things get tight, sometimes keep quiet. It took some time before the realization grew that such an approach was unsustainable. It was even their own people who, regardless of their coalition, played the digital card, to the point of imagining that you could sort of order weapons today like Amazon, the digital winner, and have them in three days. In this way, political antithetics, who were filled with understandable feelings in the face of the war and its victims, have managed to make the chancellor look old-fashioned and analogous. They forced it to go a bit more digital, which again didn’t help clarity.
But not only politicians have reduced the dispute to the format of Twitter. For many journalists, too, since February 24, the world has consisted mainly of opposites, of what is right (which they comment on day after day) and what is wrong (which the responsible politicians practice). They are quick to talk about a division in society, which is otherwise a privilege of populists. One is Russian or belongs to the other, to the good part of the world. There is peace or war and not, as with Tolstoy, war and peace. There are those of yesteryear who considered change through trade to be a good concept when dealing with totalitarian regimes and who now have to publicly renounce this concept, like renouncing at all has become an activity of a special, cleansing kind: for the politicians first, whether in office or retired, but then also for everyone else who has not yet achieved a clear vote, for artists, athletes …
There are friends of Ukraine – those who want to send heavy weapons today rather than tomorrow without detailed conditions, and those who could, but delay, postpone, obfuscate everything.
It’s true: the chancellor has a problem with the public. But his critics have it all the more. This is obscured because, as twitterers, they have the ear of their audience, who perceive subordinate clauses as an evasion of the truth. It is problematic to keep asking for commitments, both to people and to positions. No wonder that a refuser like Gerhard Schröder is ranked as God-is-not-with-us. Anyone who does not travel to Kyiv refuses to show solidarity. Anyone who doesn’t say that Ukraine will win the war, but won’t lose it, suffers from a weakness in their creed. Whoever says that he is not war-weary because he is not in a war is, so the insinuation, using subordinate clauses like smoke and mirrors.
The Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk recognized early on that you have to provoke your audience, that you have to present them with alternatives if you want to interest them in this war. He set the digital trap and made no secret of his joy that many fell into this trap. No wonder that after provoking with a cold smile without any differentiation, he has become a sought-after guest on talk shows. Because even talk shows are not the place for diversity, for the unavoidably unclear, rather for the inquisitorial: When did you stop hitting your wife? The job of a diplomat is the epitome of the fact that even bad things take time, that contracts have to be negotiated over years, that individual words count. Diplomacy is the art of creating new facts from the differentiated, an art that is currently not booming.
From a communicative point of view, the reduction of reality to manageable opposites is inadequate in every respect. This excludes questions without which there would only be distorted realities. One prevents a description and commentary on what is happening between the crystal-clear alternatives and the complete confessions. Too seldom is there talk of calculations that just don’t add up completely. What to do if one ugly day there is no winner or vanquished, but the ambiguity of an armistice? Who is today concerned in detail with the question of what makes the difference between a war that affects the whole world and a world war? What unites refugees, no matter what country they come from?
An event as complex as a war cannot be spun between a thesis and an antithesis in a hurry, with the subsequent abandonment of any attempt at a complicated, lackluster, and largely obscure synthesis.
The unambiguous therefore currently has an unquestionable course. The hesitancy, on the other hand, has to be justified. But it is not self-evident that analogue communication could be permanently replaced by digital rhetoric. At the end of the day, whenever that will be, the appeal of digital rhetoric will no longer be proportionate. The great communication researcher Paul Watzlawick points out in his book “Human Communication” that communication structures “as soon as they have come about” have a life of their own, “in contrast, the individual individuals are largely powerless”. Digital communication is proving to be a new force these months. Controlling it is a task for those who are still benefiting from it.