The "Digital Agenda" presented by the German government is one big disappointment. In the end, algorithms are to blame.
A filter bubble? Or just a soap bubble? Image: reuters
You can certainly blame algorithms for a lot of things: But they are certainly not to blame for one thing – the fact that no one who didn’t have to for professional reasons felt like dealing with this dull Digital Agenda of the German government.
If you read the gripping reports from the associated press conference, it’s almost as if the three ministers de Maizière, Dobrindt and Gabriel wanted to finally get the Internet out of the headlines. Of course, this paper is as disappointing in terms of network policy and lacks almost everything that is desirable, just like the network policy of the governing parties as a whole. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
What should really upset you is how good the CDU has become at nipping any serious digital policy discussion in the bud by simply coining a funny bon mot and thus distracting attention from the content. What Merkel calls her "new territory" is now de Maizière’s "homework book" – which is how he wanted this whole agenda thing to be understood.
Elsewhere, however, algorithms were once again to blame for everything. Those of the social networks, that is. Twitter and Facebook have had it more muggle than these days: Celebrated as revolutionary just a few years ago, they had just wriggled out of the discussion about experiments on living users, and now the new accusation is already looming: falsifying reports about #Ferguson. Users were annoyed that the topic had landed in the trending topics on Twitter much more quickly than it had been brought up on Facebook.
Twitter as good cop, Facebook as bad cop
A great story to finally explain well how powerful social networks are as gatekeepers, how dependent we are on their assumptions about what might interest us: If Facebook’s algorithm artificially kept down a local event like the riots in Ferguson, many users wouldn’t get wind of it.
Eli Pariser wrote a book years ago about the filter bubbles that Google, Facebook and others draw around us. Yet, according to a U.S. study, not even many students are aware that Facebook curates their timelines. Ferguson could be used to explain to even the least tech-savvy why it matters how algorithms change our timelines.
If only it weren’t more complicated again. Twitter as good cop, Facebook as bad cop – that’s not true either. Twitter’s trending topics are also personalized, based on algorithms, on evaluations of where in the world we read and whom we follow.
If tweets, videos and posts about #grumpycat are displayed more prominently on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter than news about #Ferguson, then this also reflects what interests me, which links I click on, which news I like. If you sow lolcats, you will reap lolcats. Knowing this is the cornerstone of digital media literacy. The real problem, however, is not that curation takes place, but that we don’t know how exactly. The only thing that is clear is that the providers see us users somewhere between guinea pigs and advertising viewers.
IS propaganda spread
Twitter has also taken a further step in the direction of opinion-cutting this week with its decision to actively delete all images and links that link to the video of the murder of US journalist Foley by the Islamist militia IS and to kick out users who repeatedly post this.
As heinous as this video is, as important as the stance of many media outlets on the retransmission of IS propaganda is, this begs the question: does the social network really want, want, and want to decide what content can be posted? Judge what is too vile, too wrong?
The problem is that if Twitter intervenes in one case, others are likely to follow. Because the neutrality of the platform is thereby abandoned, further desires to intervene will not be absent.
So far, social networks have done well to largely stay out of politics. The fact that they became an unfiltered news source during the uprisings in Iran and Egypt gave them a good reputation. Okay, let’s not talk about the prudish censorship of every nipple on Facebook, nor about the millions of deletion requests on Google for copyright violations, and yes, there was that circus back then when Assange published diplomatic dispatches. But: will social networks become more receptive to requests from the White House to ban certain content from their platforms in the future? And what about reporting on the NSA or whistleblowers?