Until recently German citizens had not been particularly interested in the negotiation of (free) trade agreements. However, the metaphorical messages spread by Germany’s major anti-TTIP groups have triggered widespread, far-higher-than-average interest in Germany. At the same time, anti-TTIP campaigns have had strong persuasive powers. For the period January 2013 to June 2016, Google Trends data shows that citizens’ interest in searching for TTIP is by far the strongest in Austria and Germany (Figure 1). It is striking that interest in TTIP is three times higher in Germany than in Spain, 20 times higher than in France and 40 times higher than in Canada and the US.
Since TTIP negotiations started in 2013, a colourful alliance of Germany’s anti-globalisation, Marxist, Christian and, particularly, environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and political parties have run forceful campaigns against a trade agreement whose chapters have yet to be written.Footnote 1 The precise motivations of each individual protest group are difficult to disentangle. Most NGOs and political parties argue that TTIP poses a threat to European consumer and environmental protection standards. Some call TTIP a substantial threat to democracy due to its opaque negotiations and the inclusion of investor–state dispute settlement procedures (see Table 1).
Highly professional campaigning organisations have managed to exploit the citizens’ (largely uninformed) reservations about the US, Brussels-centred policymaking and multinational enterprises (see Kolev 2016; Sparding 2014).
The remarkable interest of German and Austrian citizens in TTIP is also reflected by the content and relative number of Google Search queries related to TTIP (Figure 2). Eight of the 20 top Google queries related to TTIP were exclusively searched for in German. Another eight queries included generic terms that generally apply both in German and other languages. Six of the top 20 queries were biased towards a negative view of TTIP. ‘TTIP demo’, where ‘demo’ is short for protest demonstration, ranked first among the TTIP-related queries, while ‘Stop TTIP’, an initiative against TTIP that has its origins in Germany and is coordinated by German campaign groups, ranked fourth (Table 2).
By comparison, only 1 in the top 20 queries was in Spanish. The query ranked rather low down the list and, importantly, conveys a rather more neutral sentiment (TTIP que es [What is TTIP?]). The same applies for searches in English. The interest in TTIP and the negative sentiment conveyed by the Google searches is the consequence of a highly professional campaign.
Online (social) media has played a critical role in spreading a negative image of TTIP. Declared anti-TTIP groups’ messages are primarily spread through social media. Almost 80% of anti-TTIP groups’ messages are spread via Twitter, while 20% of their posts are spread through Facebook. As my analysis (Bauer 2015c) shows for the period June to December 2014, negative online media reporting about TTIP in Germany was more than 20 times higher than positive reporting. Declared anti-TTIP groups easily dominated the online media debate. In the period July to December 2014, anti-TTIP groups’ announcements in Germany amounted to 83% of the total online media coverage of the subject on average, rising to 93% at peak times. Peak-time media reporting took place around the time of the TTIP negotiation rounds. Eighty-five per cent of the total number of TTIP-related posts were originally authored and spread by anti-TTIP groups.
Even more significantly, from the very beginning of the negotiations, negative reporting about TTIP on social media was reinforced by sponsored search results from anti-TTIP groups on search engines such as Google. As a consequence, even those citizens (e.g. interested pupils and students) who searched for a balanced perspective about the agreement were rarely able to find one in German on the Internet. In September 2016, for example, Google adverts sponsored by Germany’s green political party The Alliance ’90/the Greens (hereafter the Green Party) and civil society organisations Foodwatch, Publik Forum (an organisation rooted in Christian religious beliefs), BUND and Greenpeace Germany ranked first in simple searches for TTIP. Such adverts had titles including ‘The green position on TTIP’, ‘Stop TTIP now’, ‘The war on TTIP’, and ‘Stop CETA and TTIP’. Likewise, several heavily promoted online petitions, such as the anti-TTIP groups’ call on email newsletter subscribers to contribute to the European Commission’s online consultation on investment protection in 2015 (by completing forms made available to potential signatories), contributed to spreading dubious claims rather than fact-based, balanced information (see, e.g. Bauer 2015a; European Commission 2015).