In the deliberative project Deliberation against Populism” we organized two events with citizens from Brandenburg, Germany, to discuss the problems that trouble them.[1] The prime goal of the project was to find new ways to get into contact with citizens that see themselves as political alienated or unrepresented, and to reengage them in the democratic discourse. We particularly explored the possibilities of social media, also trying to counter the much discussed “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” where people predominantly receive messages that reaffirm and strengthen their pre-existing opinions.

Together with the participants, we wanted to examine their take on contemporary society – which problems, challenges, opportunities and perspectives they see, and how these hang together. We also tried to show that it is possible, useful, enlightening and even entertaining to discuss fundamental values, ideas and perspectives with other citizens. The events were meant to be a general experience in civic participation, deliberation, reflection, and civility, that will prepare the ground for more deliberative exchanges in the future. We tried to give all of the participants a fair opportunity to articulate their troubles and grievances, without fear of stigmatization.

We searched for our participants primarily on social media and invited them personally to deliberate for one day with a group of other worried citizens. We especially looked for citizens that expressed strong discontent with the current political status quo and showed a propensity towards non-voting or voting for radical, populist parties. Those we connected with were invited to citizens’ forums in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder where they were encouraged to share their fears and frustrations.

The participants in our workshops are treated as citizens that are able to examine together with us the fundamental values and problems of our society. A pivotal problem underlying populism is that the citizens concerned do not feel represented and respected by the social, political and media establishment. Therefore, they reject relationships with mainstream political parties, journalism (“Lügen Presse”), interest and other societal groups, and lock themselves up in bubbles of like-minded “victims”. Getting these citizens to participate in the broad societal conversation is one of the most pressing vocations of contemporary western democracies. In trying to get these citizens on board again, it is not helpful to address them implicitly as “social problems”, as people with social, psychological, educational, or occupational flaws and not able to have a straightforward, rational discussion about their ideas and views. This disdain is readily recognized by the people concerned and strengthens their belief that they are not being taken seriously as citizens.[2]

Implementation Overview

In various ways we tried to get into contact with radicalizing citizens. The most important strategy was to contact them via social media. Additionally, in co-operation with four students of the Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin we tried two “offline” strategies.[3]

First, we attended a political “Stammtisch” that the populist political party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) had organized for citizens in Frankfurt an der Oder. We tried to get into a conversation with the people in attendance and to invite them for our deliberative event. Unfortunately, the AfD was not very successful in the recruitment of participants for political conversations (only 3 people showed up) and so this strategy was not very promising. Nevertheless, one of the students wrote an informative report on the talks, which contributed to our insights.

Next, we carried out a short survey on a regional train between Berlin and Cottbus, a journey that takes about 1,5 hours and thus offers plenty of time to talk politics. The survey contained questions that are strong indicators of populist attitudes.[4] The aim was to find people who are interested in talking about political topics and fitted in the profile of our event. Although many were willing to complete the survey (19 commuters), there was only one person who expressed interest for a future deliberative event and wanted to provide us with personal contact information. This person was invited several times for our event in Cottbus, although did not attend.

As remarked, social media formed the core of our efforts. More than 1300 citizens from Brandenburg, about 400 people in Cottbus and 600 in Frankfurt /Oder as well as 300 in the surrounding area, have been personally invited to our events via Facebook Messenger. We selected Cottbus and Frankfurt/Oder because of their propensity for political alienation.[5]

We found the citizens on websites and Facebook pages that contain strongly dismissive messages against refugees and migrants, as well as, the political status quo and the news media. Clicking through brought us to their personal Facebook pages as well as to other websites and Facebook pages that they visit, often containing comparable messages.[6]

The events were also advertised on Facebook (targeted to audiences in Cottbus and Frankfurt/Oder). 3352 people saw these ads. One of the citizens reached in this way came to the event.

About 10% of the 1300 people we sent a message to, opened this message. About a third of these people replied. In the end, we had in-depth conversations via email and Facebook messenger with 40 people.

We also contacted the administrators of the Facebook pages where we found many of our potential participants and asked them, whether they would be willing to advertise our deliberative event on their pages and whether they themselves would like to participate. None of these administrators replied.

Then we tried to get in direct contact with people by commenting on the comments, which they had left on websites. In our comment, we invited the person concerned to participate in our deliberative meeting (“This is an interesting perspective, we would like to talk about it with you, please open your messenger for an invitation”). This strategy brought no significant results either. Regularly, we were simply blocked. It seemed evident that we did not belong to the community.

From the 1300 citizens, not more than nine people left an email address on their Facebook page. These people we contacted directly via email. Three responded, which is a high turnout in comparison to that of social media messaging. The relatively small number of people that make their email address available for the public, is probably due to the strong feelings of Germans about internet privacy in general and those of our target group in particular.

In Cottbus (September 2, 2017) and Frankfurt an der Oder (September 23, 2017), we held a deliberative event with a total of 7 people. Both times, we talked for approximately five hours about the social and political problems these citizens wanted to discuss. We wrote detailed protocols of the meetings. The participants also filled in a survey with fundamental social, political questions. The same survey we use in our deliberative workshops with refugees and Germans volunteering in the integration-sector.[7]

In addition, several people who, for different reasons, were not able to participate in the events have informed us in writing about their ideas. Two also filled in the questionnaire.

Further information on the concerns, values, fears and hopes of the citizens of this social group obviously could be gained from the reports published on their personal Facebook pages. We publish a separate article on the more than 1300 pages we visited.[8]

Explanations for low response rate

There are various explanations for the relatively small number of responses. Firstly, because of the function structure of Facebook almost all citizens who we wrote on Facebook were not “friends” with the team, so our “message requests” simply went unnoticed in 90% of the cases. About a third of the people who read our invitation answered us.

Secondly, there is a problem of trust: they are citizens who have almost completely lost confidence in established politics, the press and civil society. Social Science Works is also often perceived as part of a society which does not respect, take seriously, or accept the members of our target group. In addition, they doubt whether it makes sense to participate. The feeling that no one would really take an interest in their opinions predominates.

Thirdly, the people we managed to reach, appeared not to have had much experience with civic participation and had no knowledge of what was to be expected of such an event. They were afraid to talk about social and political issues in public. In addition, almost all people we communicated with expressed the fear of being perceived as uneducated, stupid, extremist, racist or as Nazis.

Nevertheless, all citizens who have actually participated expressed an interest in participating in such an event again.

Addressing suspicious and sceptical citizens

One potential participant got the wrong impression that the deliberative event in Frankfurt/Oder would take place in the city hall and warned us that for most people this would be enough reason to stay away. Distrust, suspicion, scepticism with regard to almost everything connected to the established social and political system was widespread. As remarked, the citizens concerned do not feel represented and respected by the political, social and media establishment. Especially for this reason giving citizens the impression that they are considered ‘problems’ that cannot think and argue rationally should be avoided at all costs.

In our invitations we stressed at length that we were an independent, non-governmental organisation and that we took a sincere interest in the views of the people we contacted. Our first contact was formulated as follows:

“Dear Mrs. X,
My name is Y (5 different people from Social Science Works sent the messages) and I write you in name of Social Science Works, an independent organization from Potsdam. We would like to hear more from you, since we have the feeling that the issues about which you post on the internet, do not always get political attention. Against the background of the upcoming elections, we would like to talk to citizens about those issues that occupy them and which perhaps get none or too little attention in politics. Therefore, we would like to invite you to participate in a round table discussion with about 10 citizens. The aim is to have an open exchange and jointly identify topics that are neglected by the established political parties. One result of the discussion could be e.g. a jointly written position paper…. The round table takes place on September 23 in Frankfurt/Oder. Good food is provided. We start at 10 o’clock. We believe it is important that as many people as possible can express their opinions. We would be delighted if you could take the time for our discussion. You can also invite some of your friends or acquaintances to our forum. If you have any questions, write to me. Thank you for your attention! With best wishes, Y. (Our website you can find here:”[9]

Most people that had read the invitation, did not reply (about 100). Some dismissed us in strong language or swore at us (about 10). One said he would only come when we would serve beer. Some people accepted the invitation without any further questions (4). Others wanted to know more exactly who we were, why we were organizing this, who was paying for this, how independent we were (despite the fact that the project was financed by the State of Brandenburg), why we thought this would make any difference, and whether there was a dress-code. We tried to answer all these questions and encourage participants to join the round table discussion. In some cases, we communicated for three weeks. It remained unclear who would actually participate until the very last moment. Several potential participants cancelled on the morning of the event itself (migraine, family-event, work).

Some people that had expressed strong opinions online but remained hesitant to participate, to these we wrote, in a last attempt to motivate them to participate:

“Dear Mrs. X,
We have now invited 600 people in Frankfurt to talk about social and political problems. Only 4 people have said that they will come. Do we now have to conclude that there are no important problems in Frankfurt? This is hardly plausible. Therefore, I now have asked the people who had no time on Saturday but still had interest to participate, at least to write down what they consider as important problems. One page is enough. We would be very happy if you could make some time for this. Many thanks in advance!
Yours sincerely”.[10]

Four people indeed took the trouble to write down their concerns. One participants went as far as to write a detailed two-page overview of his concerns.


The deliberative event was not organized very differently from the deliberations we organize with, for instance, refugees. We tried to create a safe, inviting, friendly environment and gave much room to the participants to articulate together their concerns.[11] Since at this stage we were primarily interested in finding ways to fruitfully invite people for a deliberative event and in getting an overview of the main grievances, we did not probe extreme standpoints of participants. It struck us though, that when we did this and backed up our positions with more scholarly insights (social and political scholars sometimes really have some relatively plausible insights), people were very open to reconsider their positions.

After having explained who we were and why we were doing this, we, as usual in our deliberations, mainly asked questions: Which themes would you like to discuss? Do you have an idea why all the other people we invited stayed home? What do you consider the most important social problems of today? Which social developments irritate or frighten you? What are your social and political expectations? How should society develop, in your opinion? What kind of society would you like to live in? Each answer drove the conversation forwards and after 5 hours of talking we usually got the picture. Both times, we had difficulties to end the meeting: the participants wanted to go on and also expressed the wish to join another event.

In a separate article we will go more in depth into the concrete deliberations, as well as the communications on the internet. Below are the general findings.

Echo chambers versus real exchanges

The persistence of the echo chamber we could only confirm. One can see this on the websites that our target group visits, on the personal Facebook pages, and one notices this when one meets the citizens personally: the information which reaches these citizens is not very pluralistic, and predominantly confirm and reinforce existing opinions and feelings, which are in line with the consensus on the Facebook Pages in which they are active. As remarked, in a separate article we will report on this more in depth.[12]

Interventions on the internet, that is to say, our efforts to argue online on the websites visited by our target group or to directly address citizens and to respond to their comments and posts, made little sense: usually we were quickly blocked.

At the same time, as in our other workshops we found that the confrontation with alternative insights and perceptions in a deliberative environment can lead citizens to other thoughts relatively quickly.

A sincere exchange of ideas, values and facts, and a common learning process where citizens learn to better understand their values, fears, frustrations and hopes, and sometimes also discover their own preferences, consequently, is hard to realize on the internet. A direct exchange between “real” people in a social context, that explicitly invites people to jointly develop ideas about a good society, is not replicable online.

Political Education

The citizens we talked to, all grew up in the GDR and were, understandingly, all wary of political education, either from the East or from the “Wessies” that were sent in to re-educate them after the wall had come down. Political education in general is of course rightfully conceived as demeaning when the powers-that-be abuse this education to explain away injustice.

Nevertheless, political education appears welcome if most citizens that completed our survey “completely disagree” with a statement like: “People we elect as MP’s try to keep the promises they have made during the election”, and at the same time “completely agree” to the statement: “Conflicts between people over values are mostly due to misunderstandings and lack of knowledge”.

In addition to political education, an understanding of the functioning of (social) media appears to be badly needed. Many citizens hardly understand how “news” comes about and how Filter Bubbles develop. The reality we encountered on the Facebook Pages of the people in our target group is a ‘reality’ that is closed off from external voices.

Main grievances

In our direct communications and on the 1352 personal Facebook pages we visited, two issues were dominant: social justice as well as migrants and refugees. Dissatisfaction with their own (in actual fact, precarious) social predicament, was often contrasted with stereotypes on migrants and refugees. Rarely was there a well-thought-out connection between the two issues. Hardly ever were the causes of refugees’ status considered, or those of their own social situation.

Regarding social justice, these citizens often have the feeling that they made no material progress since the reunification or that they even have been impoverished since 1989. They feel betrayed, abandoned, threatened, lonely, ignored, stigmatized. There is no hope for improvement. Social and political trust is almost absent.

Loneliness, and the inability to connect to others, as well as the feeling that society has been falling apart and had gotten much harder and colder since the GDR-times was a much debated topic. In the past there was more solidarity and companionship, it was felt. People were not left alone and were not on their own, as they are today. There was less freedom in the GDR to take personal decisions on education and professions, but also less responsibility, and therefore, less angst.

Many participants expressed the feeling that their concerns go unheard and that their opinions are stigmatized by the mainstream press. This is in line with thousands of posts we have seen on Facebook. Most of our respondents, for example, “completely disagree” with the statement “I trust that the media in Germany report in a fair and balanced way on current social issues”. Obviously, this distrust reinforced the tendency to lock oneself up in a personal echo chamber.

With regard to refugees and migrants, people had various fears and frustrations. These fears and frustrations often were more informative about their own predicament than about refugees and migrants.

First, there is a widespread fear that as a result of the claims of the refugees on the welfare state, one’s own material situation will deteriorate still further. Also pensions (a big theme in a rapidly aging society like Germany) are supposedly under pressure. The idea that young migrant breadwinners could help to pay for their pensions, was quickly dismissed: these migrants do not want to work and anyway, they cannot because of a lack of education and skills.

Second, natives have the impression that migrants receive much more aid from the state than they themselves. They consider this as deeply unjust. How much help migrants exactly receive, is mostly unclear to participants. It is, however clear that the people in our target group often experience the state and its institutions as unsupportive, overly bureaucratic, indifferent and unreasonable.

Third, the fear is widespread that migrants have completely different values than Germans and for this reason will not integrate. How these values exactly differ, however, participants struggle to articulate. Their knowledge of, and experience with, the cultures of the migrants is small. Participants have hardly ever met migrants or refugees. The ability to differentiate between migrant groups did not extend beyond “Arabs” versus “Africans”. Nevertheless, several of our respondents expressed a strong wish to get into contact with refugees and to find out who these people actually were. They complained that no encounters had been organized between refugees and natives, and that it was extremely difficult to get into contact with “the other side”.[13]

Fourth, people are afraid of crime and assume that crime has risen rapidly, especially sexual violence against German women. The citizens with whom we have communicated, however, personally did not have experience with criminal migrants[14], and could only report examples they had seen online. The number of posts on criminal acts of refugees in the filter bubbles we observed, is indeed exceptionally high.[15] A general complaint we encountered related to the presence of groups of young, male migrants in public spaces, especially in the evening. These groups are seen to be very menacing and cause some of our respondents to stay home or only to go out when accompanied by a fellow native.

Political malaise

In general, we found a deep sense of political malaise, a feeling that one is afflicted by social processes and structures that one barely understands and also can barely influence. Rationalization, bureaucratization, economization, individualization, globalization, migration, promote a general feeling of distress, frustration, helplessness and resentment. Lacking is an interpretation scheme which helps to understand these transformations and helps to contain and steer them in preferred directions.[16] People have “troubles”, but no concrete political “issues”, which may reduce the discomfort (Wright Mills, 1958). The specific points of contention that it takes (“refugees out”), have often little to do with the fundamental problems of these citizens. What fails is a underlying goal or view that keeps society together and lends it a direction. The imagined future scenarios were poor and went as far as a civil war between natives and migrants about scarce resources.

This feeling of malaise, this mood of political ineptitude and alienation, also partly explains the frustration about migrants: the citizens in our target group have the feeling that other actors, especially the Chancellor Angela Merkel (target of a huge number of hate-posts online), but also most other German politicians, have taken fundamental decisions regarding their lives, without ever having an opportunity to discuss these decisions or to influence them. The citizens have not been integrated into the decision-making process and just have been told, that from now on they had to live in a multicultural society and that, for example, Islam was part of Germany.

What’s next?

A democracy of which 25 per cent of the citizens do not use their right to vote, and (as in several regions of Brandenburg) 25 per cent of the citizens vote against the entire political system, has a problem of legitimacy. The goal must be to invite the citizens who have lost faith in democracy, to participate again in the broad social conversation.

The workings of deliberative events are limited insofar as political distrust is caused by social injustice and social inequality, or by the inability of politics to interpret and govern fundamental social structures and processes, or by its inability to develop ideas, perspectives, and ideals that give meaning and direction to social life. Injustice is injustice and cannot be resolved or justified with the help of deliberative dialogues.

Nevertheless, deliberations can contribute to the understanding of (in)justice and its causes (for example, it is unlikely that the refugees have caused current social inequality). For a political culture it is also important that citizens explore together their views on society, that they investigate together the problems, opportunities and chances and how these hang together. For the empowerment of citizens, it is important to experience that it is possible and engaging to discuss fundamental values, ideas and perspectives with others. Therefore, deliberative workshops could be a general experience in tolerance, reflection, and civic participation, which can pave the way for further deliberative exchanges and civic activities.

What would be alternative strategies to successfully invite citizens for deliberative events? We found that recruitment via the internet is hard (although not impossible). It is extremely important to establish trust before a participant will accept an invitation. In addition we found that trust is especially lacking among the people in this group.

Therefore, another strategy we want to try out in our next project is to invite citizens that (still) have faith in the current social and political arrangements to invite citizens that have lost this faith. We will ask members of political parties, civic organisations and volunteers to invite a family member, a friend, neighbour, colleague or acquaintance of whom they feel that they belong to our target group, to attend together a deliberative event. Together with up to seven or eight tandems, we will at this event investigate political and social problems and opportunities. We assume that these pairs still enjoy mutual trust, based on non-political motivations. By starting with this trust, we want to strengthen civic participation and social cohesion, as well as to fortify civic competencies.

In other words, we do not give up. In democracies one never throws in the towel anyway.


[1] The project has been made possible by Tolerantes Brandenburg, a semi-governmental organisation in Brandenburg devoted to the furthering of an open, pluralist democracy. Sarah Coughlan and the author implemented the project.

[2] For more on this theme: see the article Taking people seriously.

[3] We thank Aimo Schultz, Rita Maciera de Sousa, Jessica Pawlak and Daniela Montagut Cuello for their great support in the first phases of the project. Also thanks to Charlotte Reinl, also of the Alice Salomon Hochschule, for her protocol of the deliberations in Frankfurt/Oder. We were impressed by the skills and commitment of all these students.

[4] Examples of these questions are: „Ich habe Vertrauen darin, dass die Medien in Deutschland fair und ausgewogen über aktuelle Probleme berichten“; and „Kulturelle Vielfalt gefährdet den gesellschaftlichen Zusammenhalt in Deutschland“.

[5] The voter turnout in the electoral district Frankfurt (Oder) – Oder-Spree and in Cottbus – Spree-Neiße for the federal elections on September 24, 2017 was 71,9 respectively, 73,9 per cent. The AfD received 21,9 respectively, 25,3 per cent of the votes. For Germany as a whole this was 11,5 per cent with a voter turnout of 76,2 per cent. ;

[6] Examples of websites where we started our searches, are:;;;

[7] For more information on these projects, click here. In another research, we will compare the answers of the different groups.

[8] Coughlan, Sarah. 2017. Finding Alienation: An Analysis of Right-Wing Facebook Pages in Brandenburg.

[9] In German: Sehr geehrte Frau Merkel, Meine Name ist Hans Blokland und ich schreibe Ihnen im Namen von Social Science Works, einer unabhängigen Organisation aus Potsdam, von der ich Geschäftsführer bin. Wir sind daran interessiert, mehr von Ihnen zu hören, da wir den Eindruck haben, dass die Themen zu denen Sie im Internet aktiv sind, in der Politik oft nicht ernst genommen werden. Vor dem Hintergrund der anstehenden Wahlen, möchten wir als Organisation uns mit Bürgern über die Themen und Sorgen austauschen, die diese beschäftigen und die auf Seiten der Politik vielleicht zu wenig oder keine Beachtung finden. Deshalb möchten wir Sie herzlich einladen an einer Gesprächsrunde mit ca. 10 Bürgern teilzunehmen. Ziel ist es, einen offenen Austausch zu haben und gemeinsam Themen zu benennen, die von der etablierten Politik vernachlässigt werden. Ein Ergebnis der Gesprächsrunde könnte z.B. ein gemeinsam verfasstes Positionspapier sein. Es besteht die Möglichkeit, wenn Sie das zusammen möchten, das Positionspapier zu veröffentlichen und Politiker einzuladen das Papier zu kommentieren. Die Gesprächsrunde wird den 23. September in Frankfurt (Oder) stattfinden (City Park Hotel, Lindenstraße 12). Für gutes Essen ist gesorgt. Wir fangen an um 10 Uhr. Wir glauben, es ist wichtig, dass möglichst viele Menschen ihre Meinung äußern können. Wir würden uns freuen, wann Sie für unsere Gesprächsrunde Zeit nehmen können. Gerne können sie auch einige Ihrer Freunde oder Bekannten zu unserem Forum einladen. Falls Sie Fragen haben, schreiben Sie mir. Vielen Dank für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit! Mit besten Grüßen, Hans Blokland (Unsere Webseite finden Sie hier:

[10] In German: Wir haben jetzt 600 Menschen in Cottbus eingeladen um mit uns über soziale und politische Problemen zu reden. Nur 4 Menschen haben zugesagt vorbei zu kommen. Müssen wir jetzt schlussfolgern dass es keine wichtige Probleme in Cottbus gibt? Das ist kaum vorstellbar. Ich habe deshalb jetzt die Menschen die Sag keine Zeit hatten aber trotzdem Interesse hatten, gefragt wenigstens auf zu schreiben was nach ihre Meinung die wichtige Probleme sind. Eine Seite reicht. Es würde uns sehr freuen wenn Sie dafür die Zeit frei machen könnten. Vielen Dank im Voraus! Mit freundlichen Grüßen.

[11] For an overview of our assumptions and methods regarding deliberation, see this article.

[12] See 8.

[13] Looking at the websites of, for instance civil organizations in Frankfurt and Cottbus, we indeed get the impression that in these kind of towns or cities offer considerably fewer events to meet newcomers have been organized as in liberal islands like Potsdam and Berlin. The crumbling of civil society in these regions might explain this.

[14] One of our participants, a young unemployed woman, told us that she had been walking her dog in the dark and that she had been scared to death when she suddenly had seen the bright eyes and teeth of an African man, clothed in dark colors. The man had just passed by, nothing had happened. But still. Another citizen wrote us: „Der Flüchtlingsstrom nimmt eh kein Ende… Wenn sie mal die Nachrichten verfolgen und sehen was die Merkel und die Politiker dem deutschen Volke mit der Massen Einwanderung antun… Bleibt es nicht aus das wir als deutsches Volk etwas dagegen tun müssen.. Selbst meine Frau ist fast Opfer eines sexuellen Übergriff geworden… und das lass ich nicht als stolzer Deutscher Bürger nicht zu…“

[15] That sexual violence has risen, seems undeniable. The question is what explains this and what could be done to counter it. The (liberal) Süddeutsche Zeitung observes: “Hinzu kämen oft scheinbar perspektivlose Situationen, Frust und der geringe Zugang zum alltäglichen Leben. “Frühzeitige und mehr Aufklärung würde helfen”, sagt [der Sozial- und Sexualpädagoge Christian Zech]. Es gebe unterschiedliche Rollenbilder sowie teils ein anderes Verständnis im Umgang mit und der Annäherung an Frauen – das führe zu Missverständnissen und dazu, eigene Schlüsse aus Situationen zu ziehen, oft die falschen.”

[16] cf. Blokland, Hans. 2006. Modernization and its Political Consequences. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.