HBI researcher Judith Möller was a guest on the arte programme "Agree to Disagree" and discussed with psychologist and scientist Bertolt Meyer the impact of social media on users as well as on our democracy as a whole.
Can fake news and conspiracy theories undermine governments by distorting information, spreading misrepresentations, and encouraging political manipulation? As a specialist in filter bubbles and political communication on the internet, Judith Möller emphasises that social media are still what we make of them. The algorithms, sometimes demonised as too powerful and in-transparent, are, after all, also only made by people. "We can decide whether, for example, when we search for the word "woman", the search engine only shows us pictures of white women, as was actually the case a few years ago, or whether we want to get more diverse results," says Judith Möller. "This is a design opportunity for the future. And that's what technology offers us."
Are social media then not as dangerous to our democracy as is sometimes claimed, Bertolt Meyer wants to know. Judith Möller argues that we sometimes get a distorted picture of public debate these days, giving us the impression that our society is much more deeply divided than it actually is. This impression is created, she says, because today extreme views end up much more often in the classic media as well. "On social media it is very easy to find like-minded people. Extreme opinions can also be found there quickly and can become quite loud as a group." These groups can initiate debates online that would never be held with the same intensity in analogue life. But these online debates are readily picked up by journalists. "In this way, extreme views, which are de facto a minority, end up in the traditional media because of the noise they make on social media." This surprised us, as classic media had the problem of mainstreaming for a long time, and we were used to reading the same opinions over and over again. This possibly created a false image of extreme unity, just as a false image of extreme division would be created today.
Should extreme opinions be allowed to be expressed in social media at all? Judith Möller is concerned with proportionality in this question. "Even an extreme opinion must be allowed to be expressed in a democracy, as long as it does not cross a legal line. However, the question is how much space an extreme opinion is allowed to take up in public debate. We have lost this proportionality in recent years. Therefore, it just sometimes seems as if our society is drifting apart much more than it actually does."
Watch the entire debate
Hamburg, 17 August 2023
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